Theories on Ancient Wooden Ship Found at Ground Zero

What's the history of the 18th-century vessel?

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Earlier this week, The New York Times' David Dunlap reported that Ground Zero workers excavating the site for the future World Trade Center unearthed the remnants of a 30-foot wooden ship several yards below street level. This is not the first time a wooden cargo vessel has been discovered in New York -- an 18th-century cargo ship was uncovered beneath 175 Water Street in 1982 -- but archaeologists are marveling over the longevity of the ship's timbers, preserved in a "cocoon of ooze" beneath the World Trade Center. Here's what they know -- or think they know -- so far about the vessel:

  • Landfill Material? Dunlap reports that the ship most likely did not shipwreck as more romantic readers might speculate. Rather, the ship was most likely used during the late 18th and early 19th centuries to extend the shoreline of Manhattan Island ever farther into the Hudson River. "About the farthest [archaeologists] Mr. Mackey and Mr. Pappalardo would go in conjecture was to say that the sawed-off beams seemed to indicate that the hull had deliberately been truncated, most likely to be used as landfill material," writes Dunlap. "A 1797 map shows that the excavation site is close to where Lindsey’s Wharf and Lake’s Wharf once projected into the Hudson."
  • Of Caribbean Origins? The AP's Verena Dobnik reports that archaeologists might have narrowed down the ship's place of origin: "Brower, the historian, works in Mystic, Conn. — renowned for its historic vessels. He 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 tunnels in the timber."
  • An Armed Commerce Vessel? The Christian Science Monitor's Ron Scherer writes that the ship's origins and makeup highlight its role in maritime commerce. "When the wood was examined, archaeologists found shipworm casings that had come from the Caribbean. This indicated that the ship, which had gun ports, was probably involved in some sort of commerce with the islands."
  • A Whaling Ship? The New York Times' Alison Leigh Cowan follows up on the original report with some interesting findings as to the purpose of the vessel: "Doug Mackey, the archaeologist for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said dendrochronology, a branch of science that uses tree rings to date wood, could pinpoint the age of the ship with some precision," reports Cowan. "He said he was skeptical of the view that the metal arc and bricks suggested a whaling ship, speculating that they could simply be remnants from an ordinary cooking platform in a galley. 'If it was a whaling ship,' he said, 'it would have been much more extensive.
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