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Planks and other remains of an 18th-century ship were found at the World Trade Center construction site in July 2010.

Mark Lennihan • Associated Press file,

Buried cargo ship gives up some secrets of the deep

  • Article by: Terrence McCoy
  • Washington Post
  • August 4, 2014 - 8:03 PM

It was a Tuesday when construction workers found it in lower Manhattan in 2010 — nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks that toppled the World Trade Center towers.

The workers were in awe. Underneath the black muck and ooze of the ruins lay an exoskeleton of something that hadn’t seen air for 200 years and, freshly exposed to the elements, was quickly deteriorating. It was a vessel, 30 feet long. Hundreds of years old, the cargo ship had somehow been preserved 20 to 30 feet below street level.

Columbia University researchers laid out many of the ship’s secrets in a fresh study published this month in the journal Tree-Ring Research. Scientists say this “rare and valuable piece of American shipbuilding history” helps shed light on how ships of that period were built.

Maryland archaeologists and curators were intrigued.

The land where the World Trade Center was built was not always land. And New York City was not always New York City. In 1647, the Dutch West India Company built the first wharves in what was then New Amsterdam. After the British came to town and founded New York, some of the coastline and inland bodies of water were filled to create more land.

Sometime between 1760 and 1818, according to the study, the land where the World Trade Center would stand was filled. “The location where the ship was found had been infilled by the 1790s,” wrote the scientists, led by Dario Martin-Benito of Columbia’s Tree-Ring Laboratory. “Our hypothesis is that the ship was built in the mid to late 18th century and was sunk, either deliberately or accidentally, less than 30 years later.”

But where was it built? And by whom?

The answers, researchers say, are in its wood. Applying the techniques of dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, the researchers homed in on what went down — and where.

One major clue was the ship’s keel. It contained hickory, “which greatly reduces the possible provenance to the eastern United States or to East Asia, the latter of which is unlikely.” The most likely area: Philadelphia. Their research “suggests that most if not all of the timbers used to build the ship came from the same forest in the Philadelphia area.”

The study said it sank at a lower Manhattan harbor only 20 to 30 years after it was built and may have made at least one trip to the Caribbean.

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