While digging into the foundation of the future site for the buildings standing in place of the Twin Towers, workers found the remains of an old, wooden ship made of white oak (Quercus Leucobalanus). In July of 2010, the 9.75m partial hull of the ship was found buried 7m below street level where it was determined to be of North American origins from the building material found in the keel made of hickory, that helped narrow the field down because it is only found in eastern North America and eastern Asia. The ship was sent to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory to be soaked in water and prevent its decay in exposed air. Several timbers from the vessel were sent back to New York City to be slowly dried out and then examined under the watchful eyes of the scientists from the Tree-Ring Laboratory located in the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University
These crafty researchers, led by Dario Martin-Benito (a postdoctoral fellow from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), have figured out the year when the ship was built, details about where it traveled, and why it might have ended up underneath some pretty iconic buildings.
For those of you thinking..”hey, why can’t you just use isotopic dating?” the answer is that the decay time is a little too “short” to be calculated through these means. Instead, to determine the age of the hull, scientists cut several cross-sections from the timber and counted the tree rings that made up the ship.
From those rings, researchers found the year the trees was felled, in 1773. They were also able to conclude that the wood came from the same area or in close proximity of each other due to the similarities between the wood’s ring pattern. Because the thickness of a tree ring is determined by that year’s climate (whether there was a lot of rain or little), the researchers were then able to compare it to old live trees and white oak samples (including one from Independence Hall) to determine its origins.
Scientists found the location of where this ship was built by organizing 21 different oak chronologies that went over a period of 280 years, and then comparing it to the rings cut from the ship’s wood. By doing this, lead Martin-Benito and other participants were able to accurately pin down that this ship was constructed in Philadelphia with its lumber gathered from the area and in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Other interesting finds included damage made by Lyrodus pedicellatus or type of worm typically found in the Caribbeans, which suggests that this ship had taken a voyage down there before its discovery in Manhattan. It is unclear whether the ship sunk accidentally or purposely moored to beef up NYC’s coastline, however it is suggested that because of this infestation, the vessel was retired early. Also, the vessel was produced in a small shipyard because of its design.
This is particularly interesting in terms of American shipbuilding history because…one does not simply stumble upon an 18th-century vessel almost three hundred years later. There is also a distinct lack of documentation when it came to shipbuilding CONSTRUCTION (there was plenty in terms of “receipts” from lumber materials), probably due to the fact that most ship builders were too busy creating the ships rather than sitting down to detail how they built the thing.
For more on the study, BioOne has the published article here!