Unearthed Ship In NYC Offers Clues Of Colonial Life

  • A group of conservators, curators, and volunteers at Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, drain the tank to further clean the wood planks. A heavy smell is coming out of the planks.
    Hide caption
    A group of conservators, curators, and volunteers at Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, drain the tank to further clean the wood planks. A heavy smell is coming out of the planks.
    Photos by Yanina Manolova/NPR/NPR
  • A piece of the ship's frame is surrounded by coded dots. The dots will be used in software to create a 3D model of the timbers of the ship.
    Hide caption
    A piece of the ship's frame is surrounded by coded dots. The dots will be used in software to create a 3D model of the timbers of the ship.
    Yanina Manolova/NPR
  • Carrie Fulton, a PhD student at Cornell University, records and documents the ship's timbers. Even the smallest details about the ship, thought to have sailed the East Coast in the 1700s, offer new insights into the past.
    Hide caption
    Carrie Fulton, a PhD student at Cornell University, records and documents the ship's timbers. Even the smallest details about the ship, thought to have sailed the East Coast in the 1700s, offer new insights into the past.
    Yanina Manolova/NPR
  • A conservator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory cleans a piece of wood plank.
    Hide caption
    A conservator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory cleans a piece of wood plank.
    Yanina Manolova/NPR
  • Like other parts of the ship, this section called the stern knee, will be recorded in a database.
    Hide caption
    Like other parts of the ship, this section called the stern knee, will be recorded in a database.
    Yanina Manolova/NPR
  • This coin may have been placed there by the ship's builders for good luck, a tradition dating back to the ancient Greeks.
    Hide caption
    This coin may have been placed there by the ship's builders for good luck, a tradition dating back to the ancient Greeks.
    Yanina Manolova/NPR
  • A conservator covers the ship's timbers, placed at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. The ship is estimated to have been about 60 feet in length.
    Hide caption
    A conservator covers the ship's timbers, placed at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. The ship is estimated to have been about 60 feet in length.
    Yanina Manolova/NPR

1 of 7

View slideshow i

They call it the mystery ship: a wooden vessel that may have sailed the Hudson River and the East Coast, transporting goods between the flourishing Colonies. Its remains were found last month in the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York City. They've since been moved to a science lab in Maryland, where each day brings new discoveries.

The first thing that hits you when you lean toward the enormous tanks filled with water, where scientists use small brushes to clean the timbers, is the smell — a bit like rotten eggs. Or, as Nichole Doub, head conservator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, says, "that deep-woods smell after a really heavy rain." But after weeks of being "up to our knees and elbows" in it, she says, perhaps she's become desensitized to it.

The complex on the shore of the Patuxent River is full of dark, wet timbers from the mystery ship. The largest piece of the ship, called the apron, weighs in at 540 pounds. Doub puts the vessel's size at about 60 feet. She guesses it was a work boat, very solidly built, and used to transport cargo during the 1700s.

"This is a part of our country's history at a point when we had only just recently gained our independence, and where our nation relied very heavily upon our naval vessels as well as our ability to transport goods across water," Doub says. "And that really was a defining feature of who we were and how we were going to become the nation we are today."

Archaeologists begin dismantling the remains of a ship at the World Trade Center construction site. i

Archaeologists (right) begin dismantling the remains of a ship at the World Trade Center site on July 26 in New York. The 32-foot piece of the vessel was found 20 feet below street level, where workers are excavating for a parking garage. Mark Lennihan/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Lennihan/AP
Archaeologists begin dismantling the remains of a ship at the World Trade Center construction site.

Archaeologists (right) begin dismantling the remains of a ship at the World Trade Center site on July 26 in New York. The 32-foot piece of the vessel was found 20 feet below street level, where workers are excavating for a parking garage.

Mark Lennihan/AP

But we don't know much else. Over the next few weeks, different experts will come to find clues. Someone will date the tree rings. Another will look at the woodworms.

The discovery of iron nails and spikes is causing the scientists to re-evaluate what they knew about shipbuilding technology at the time, which was thought to have relied more on wooden dowels. And the recent discovery of a coin, in a very special place, means they're going to have to call a coin specialist. Sara Rivers-Cofield, another curator, says the coin placement is an important clue.

"There's not much information left on it, but because of its position, it tells us about the superstitions of people, it tells us about how they lived and what they believed and what they wanted there, and that's what archaeology's really about," she says.

The coin was found between the keel and the stern post. Rivers-Cofield says it's a tradition, dating back to the ancient Greeks, to place a coin there during construction to bring good luck to the ship.

"The thrill of discovery never stops, even when you're not digging anymore," Rivers-Cofield says.

A photographer is documenting each of the more than 400 pieces and using 3-D technology to create a digital catalog. Another curator traces an outline on acetate of every single piece. Doub says everyone wants to be involved in solving its mystery.

"They [the ships] are very romantic ... everyone thinks of the voyage and, you know, the danger involved in it," she says. "I think there's something that everyone recognizes and has some form of attachment to, whether you've been on one or not."

And the public can be part of it, too. The Maryland lab offers tours so visitors can come see — and most definitely smell.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.