Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

They call it the mystery ship - an 18th century wooden vessel found in the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York City. The ship's remains have been moved to a laboratory in Maryland, where NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports each day brings new discoveries.

(Soundbite of scraping)

JAMIE TARABAY: The first thing that hits you when you lean into the enormous tanks filled with water, where scientists use small brushes to clean the timbers, is the smell.

I mean, it's like rotten eggs or something.

Ms. NICHOLE DOUB (Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory): It has almost that deep-woods smell after a really heavy rain.

TARABAY: I think that's a very romantic way of looking at it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DOUB: Perhaps, but we've been up to our knees and elbows in this for several weeks, and maybe I'm becoming a bit desensitized to it.

TARABAY: That desensitized person is Nichole Doub, head conservator here at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory. The complex is on the shore of the Patuxent River and is now full of dark, wet timbers from the mystery ship.

Ms. DOUB: This is the largest piece of the ship. It's called the apron.

TARABAY: It weighs in at 540 pounds. Doub puts the vessel's size at about 60 or so feet. She guesses it was a work boat, very solidly built, and used to transport cargo up and down the Hudson River and along the East Coast in the 1700s.

Ms. DOUB: 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. And that really was a defining feature of who we were and how we were going to become the nation we are today.

TARABAY: But there's not much else we know. 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 ship building 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. Here's Sara Rivers Cofield, another curator.

Ms. SARA RIVERS COFIELD (Curator): There's not much information left on it but because´┐Żof its position, it tells us about the superstitions´┐Żof the people; it tells us about how they lived and what they believed, and what they wanted there. And that's what archaeology is really about.

TARABAY: The coin was found between the keel and the stern post. She says it's a tradition dating back hundreds of years to the ancient Greeks, who'd place a coin there during construction to bring good luck to the ship.

Ms. COFIELD: The thrill of discovery never stops, even when you're not digging anymore.

TARABAY: A photographer is documenting each of the more than 400 pieces, and using 3D 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 the mystery of the ship.

Ms. DOUB: They are very romantic, Jamie. Everyone thinks of, you know, the voyage and, you know, the danger involved in it. I don't know. I think there's something that everyone recognizes and has some form of attachment to, whether you've been on one or not.

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

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

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.