Volume 23, Number 11 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 21 - 27, 2010
Uncovering the past while building for the future
BY Aline Reynolds
World Trade Center construction workers were going about their business last Tuesday between Liberty and Cedar Streets, digging 25 feet below street level, when the ribs of a cargo ship started to appear.
This wasn’t just another section of an underground landfill, which on-site archaeologists expected to discover; it was part of a 30-foot-long ship. It is the first discovery of its kind since 1982, when the 18th century cargo boat, the Ronson, was uncovered under Water Street.
“They very quickly realized that this wasn’t like anything else they had seen down there before. It was the outline of a ship forming,” said Doug Mackey, an archaeologist for the New York State Historic Preservation Office.
Apart from examining the artifacts, Mackey joined the excavation team on Wednesday to mediate between the preservation and construction activities at the site.
“It was a singular moment,” said Michael Pappalardo, an archaeologist for environmental consulting firm Allee King Rosen and Fleming who was also on site. “We weren’t expecting it.”
In analyzing the remnants of the ship, the archaeologists deduced that the boat was two to three times longer than the portion found. While Ronson was largely in tact, archaeologists at the W.T.C. site only found the hull and keel, the bottom part of the ship, leaving many unanswered questions.
“We’re not sure what happened to the superstructure — we have no idea why it’s missing,” Pappalardo said.
He added the possibility that, once the ship was taken apart, the wood from the vessel’s upper body could have been recycled or used as firewood.
The archaeologists speculate that the bottom part of the ship that was found was placed in the ground in the late 1700s, when the landfill was being formed. They suspect the ship had been in such disrepair that the city decided to dismember it.
“It’s not just a ship that had sunk. We can tell that the hull has been cut off,” he said. Another hypothesis, according to Pappalardo, is that the damaged boat could have sunk there, prior to the landfill’s existence.
The city created a landfill on West Street in the early 1800s to develop and sell prime real estate, which nurtured the economy.
“When everything gets built up, they need more and more land to build out further,” Mackey explained. “It gives us some clues as to what else was happening in the area, even though the buildings are no longer there.”
The excavators uncovered ceramics, bottles, pottery pieces and a pile of shoes on the site. Also buried in the ground were cow horns, indicating that there was once a slaughterhouse nearby where butchers would chuck the day’s garbage out to the landfill. “These are all just tiny pieces of a giant puzzle. It’s the way we learn about the past,” said Mackey.
He said it would take anywhere from months to years to gather clues about the origins of the ship and the other artifacts through dating testing and analysis.
“Dendrochronology…tells you when logs were cut down and can help you identify the date that the ship was built,” Mackey said.
As for the other artifacts that were found, “Identifying patterns on ceramics and the technology of the bottles can give you a general idea of when they were made,” Pappalardo said.
The artifacts were found at the site of the future Vehicle Security Center, at 175 Water Street, where police will screen buses, trucks and cars entering the W.T.C. site. W.T.C. construction workers were able to continue working amid the paramount discovery. Mackey noted that there were only an hour or two of delays in construction on the day of the find, and no disruptions thereafter. “Archaeologists are on site already, monitoring the entire excavation. As things turn up, they’re ready to deal with it right away,” Mackey explained.
And, as work on the site goes on, digging deep into the earth will continue to help archaeologists piece together Lower Manhattan’s past. “We’ll have a really good picture of how this land was made when we’re done with this whole process,” said Mackey.