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Details of 18th-Century 'Ground Zero Ship' Revealed

The timbers of the ship uncovered at the World Trade Center site, exposed to the air for possibly the first time in more than 200 years. (Image credit: MAC Lab.)

NEW YORK – Since the remains of a wooden ship were unearthed at the World Trade Center construction site in mid-July, a horde of researchers has been putting the vessel under the microscope — sometimes literally — in a quest to piece together the true story of the resurrected ship, and save it from decay.

Last night (Sept. 30), three of the experts most intimately involved with the 18th-century mystery ship — Michael Pappalardo, an archeologist, Norman Brouwer, a maritime historian, and Nichole Doub, a conservator — convened on a tiny stage here at the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) in front of a packed house, to discuss what science and history detectives have uncovered about the ship so far.

The 32-foot- (9.7 meters) long timber structure is the back end and bottom quarter of what researchers believe was a two-masted trade vessel, a workhorse of its day. The area where it was found was part of the Hudson River in the late 18th century, and it's not clear if the ship sank, or if it was stuck in the river bottom on purpose to act as fill to make more "land" for Manhattan.

Brouwer is calling the boat a Hudson River sloop, and says it was probably between 60 and 70 feet (18 and 21 m) – about the size of an articulated, extra-long New York City bus.

The vessel may have traveled up and down the Hudson River and perhaps the Atlantic seaboard, ferrying goods like sugar, molasses, salt and rum between the warm Caribbean and the uniting colonies to the north.

"We found seeds, pits and nuts," said Pappalardo, of the firm AKRF, a consulting company working with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC), operators of the WTC site. "They might have been what the ship was used to transport, or they might have been eaten by the people on the boat. We're working our way through different scenarios."

All three panelists acknowledged that this barely-sketched biography is only the beginning. Scientists are trying to flesh out the picture of the ship, studying everything from the tiny parasites that once burrowed into the ship's wood, to the tree rings in the vessel's lumber, to the remnants of animal skins and fur found attached to the ship's bottom.

"What is that?"

The tale of the Ground Zero ship, as some have dubbed it, began at 6 a.m. local time on a Tuesday in July.

In an interview earlier in the week, Pappalardo told the story of the ship's initial discovery.

"The day before, we were on-site monitoring, and found all kinds of wooden remains," Pappalardo told OurAmazingPlanet. The notched logs they found were remnants of tall structures that were sunk in the river as landfill in the late 18th century.

Pappalardo and his colleague, archeologist Molly McDonald, arrived on site early on July 13, in case the pilings heralded another, more dramatic find lying under the mud. They didn't have to wait long. Almost immediately, McDonald spotted a curved piece of wood sticking out of the ground.

McDonald, who attended the event last night, said her first thought was, "Whoa, what is that?" The pair got the backhoes to stop digging, grabbed some shovels, and within 10 minutes had uncovered enough timber to indicate they had a ship on their hands. "It was pretty exciting," she said.

The discovery touched off a flurry of activity over the next three weeks as the ship was uncovered and removed from the site.

In fact, Pappalardo said, even before the ship emerged from the muck, the site had yielded up thousands of interesting artifacts from the late 1700s and early 1800s — butchered animal bones, ceramic dishes, stemmed glasses, bottles and dozens upon dozens of shoes.

"The ship was obviously an added adventure," Pappalardo said. The ship and the mud that coated it offered up many additional intriguing artifacts, including a human hair with a tiny louse still clinging to it.

Save Our Ship

Nichole Doub, head conservator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, or MAC Lab, tasked with stabilizing the waterlogged ship, said freeing the ship from the oily muck was an "assault on the senses."

It didn't smell very good.

But the centuries the ship spent buried in a thick layer of organic matter is what actually preserved it. "There's not a lot of oxygen," Doub said, "so microbes can't live in there – and that's why everything that stuck out above that sludge layer into the river water was eventually worn away."

The cleaned remains, entirely disassembled, are now soaking in purified water in temporary storage. Doub explained the ship must remain wet, to keep it from cracking and warping. If the timbers dried, evaporating water molecules would literally rip apart the wood's fragile cells.

In the process of taking the ship apart, Doub's lab made another dramatic find: a copper disc inside the ship's structure, which Doub quickly identified as a coin. An expert at the Smithsonian says it is a half-penny, a British coin, issued during the reign of George II, who ruled England from 1727 to 1760.

Placing coins in key structural elements of a ship is a tradition extending back hundreds of years, and still persists today. In 2008, coins were placed within the newly-completed USS New York, the transport vessel built partly with steel beams from the destroyed twin towers, bringing the tradition full circle.

What's next

Doub explained that if the LMDC gives the ship preservation process the green light, the wood will probably be soaked with polyethylene glycol or PEG, a chemical used in everything from toothpaste to eye drops. The PEG will slowly replace the water in the wood's cellular structure. The timbers would be frozen, and then vacuum freeze-dried, transforming the wood and making it easier for scientists to study without damaging it.

"It is solid, it is dry, and it can be handled in whatever way necessary for the next phase of interpretation," Doub said.

The LMDC still hasn't announced a decision on what will be done with the ship, but researchers hope to have more answers about the vessel's history by early next year, after they've had time to analyze more data, and possibly even come up with a name.

Kevin J. Eckelbarger, of the Darling Marine Center in Maine, has given researchers one lead. He identified the culprit that ate away at much of the ship's wood: Lyrodus pedicellatus, a tiny, burrowing clam he says is typically found in warmer waters.

In the meantime, researchers remain divided over how the ship met its end — was it dragged onshore once it was destroyed by invading pests, then dumped back in the water as fill, or did it sink on its own?

After a few questions from the crowd at the event, everyone funneled out of the room into the NYAS lobby, where a light buffet awaited attendees.

As panelists and audience members sipped wine from squat, plastic stemware and discussed the ship's provenance, a glance out the floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the World Trade Center site, 40 stories below. A few floodlights illuminated an army of yellow earthmovers, silent, ready to begin work again in the morning.

This article was provided by OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site of LiveScience.

Andrea Mustain was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a B.S. degree from Northwestern University and an M.S. degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia University.