Ship from 1700s found at ground zero
NEW YORK — The ship was buried as junk two centuries ago — landfill to expand a bustling little island of commerce called Manhattan. When it re-emerged this week, surrounded by skyscrapers, it was an instant treasure from the mud near ground zero.
A 32-foot piece of the vessel was found in soil 20 feet under street level, amid noisy bulldozers excavating a parking garage for the future World Trade Center. Near the site of so many grim finds — Sept. 11 victims’ remains, twisted steel — this discovery was as unexpected as it was thrilling.
Historians say the ship, believed to date to the 1700s, was defunct by the time it was used around 1810 to extend the shores of Lower Manhattan.
“A ship is the summit of what you might find under the World Trade Center — it’s exciting!” said Molly McDonald, an archaeologist who first spotted part of the frame of the ship peeking out of the muddy soil at dawn Tuesday.
By Thursday, she and three colleagues had dug up the hull from the pit where a section of the new trade center is being built.
The ship harbors many mysteries still to be solved: “Where was it built? How was it used? Why was it sunk?”
McDonald and archaeologist A. Michael Pappalardo made the discovery Tuesday about 6:15 a.m., just as they started their shift observing construction in the pit at the southern edge of ground zero. The two work for AKRF, a New York environmental consulting firm hired to document artifacts discovered at the trade center site.
“We noticed two curved timbers that a backhoe had dislocated,” McDonald said. Joined by two more archaeologists, they started digging with shovels, “and we quickly found the rib of a vessel and continued to clear it away and expose the hull over the last two days.”
Marine historian Norman Brower told the archaeologists that it was an oceangoing vessel that might have sailed the Caribbean, as evidenced by 18th-century marine organisms that had bored tiny tun- nels in the timber.
The ship likely got buried as part of the effort to extend Lower Manhattan into the Hudson River in the 1700s and 1800s. The ship was weighted down and sunk to the bottom of the river, as support for new city piers in a part of Manhattan tied to global trade.
There were also other traces of human life nearby — “pieces of shoes all over,” said McDonald, who had no idea how they got there.
Archeologists Elizabeth Meade, left, and Molly McDonald survey the wood hull of an 8th century ship unearthed in New York.