The One World Trade Center stands tall, 1776 feet to be exact, above Ground Zero, a site deeply entrenched in the hearts of millions of Americans. Earlier this year, workers placed the final touches on the building that justly defines the New York City skyline, completing one of the nation’s most emotional construction projects to date. The tower’s current influence will shape United States history for years to come, but the building, or its construction rather, has much older ties to America’s past.
In July of 2010, workers excavating a part of the foundation made a discovery, and what began that morning as routine construction quickly evolved into an archaeological dig. Where the One World tower stands today was once a part of the Hudson River. The debris-filled area, actually a landfill dating back to 1790, gave up a curved timber to a backhoe, and archaeologists working on site immediately went in to investigate.
After the silt and accumulated soil had been carefully removed, researchers and laborers alike peered down at the skeleton of half of a ship. The remainder was later unearthed in an adjacent quadrant. Estimates place the medium sized merchant vessel at approximately sixty feet in length, leading to the conclusion that it would have engaged in local trade along the East Coast. The exact details as to where the ship had traveled are hoped to be revealed under further analysis.
In its day, this type of ship was standard, seen in nearly every port city. However, detailed drawings and plans are uncommon for these ships, as they were expendable. “[the ships] were considered mundane, and the building techniques weren’t documented. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime discovery” stated Diane Dallal, one of the archaeologists present on-site.1
The ship was unearthed approximately thirty feet under the modern-day surface of New York, but stratigraphy did not yield a date. Instead, scientists from Columbia University’s dendrochronology lab were able to accurately date and place several the ship’s timbers using tree-ring analysis. “The same pattern of growth variability in the World Trade Center boat was found in timbers in southeastern Pennsylvania. There is no indication that timbers came from a more remote area,”2 stated Edward Cook, who spearheaded the investigation. It is likely then, that the ship was constructed in Philadelphia on or after 1773 and sailed from there to the sea. According to Martin Bridge of University College London, “With shipbuilding you usually use [timbers] within a year or two [after they are felled] because it’s easier to work with,”3 meaning the ship left port on the eve of the revolution.
One World Trade Center, now complete, attracts the eyes of thousands each day. But on display in Maryland, the remnants of a merchant ship draw researchers, architects, and archaeologists interested in our nation’s past. Thanks to Diane Dallal and her team, this ship is resurrected, and while New York has reclaimed her skyline, anthropologists have made their own monumental achievement.
1. Neely, Paula. “Ship Found at World Trade Center.” American Archaeology, Fall 2010.
2, 3. Langin, Katie. “Wooden Ship Unearthed at World Trade Center Site From Revolutionary-Era Philadelphia.” National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/07/140731-world-trade-center-ship-tree-rings-science-archaeology/ (accessed September 15, 2014).
Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology essentials: theories, methods, and practice. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 20102010.