Discovery in the Wake of Construction

Looking at One World Trade Center from across ground zero

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.

A top view of the ship after the majority has been unearthed. Note the tell-tale curved timbers, overall hull shape, and silty soil.

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.

Some of the ship’s timbers ready to be arranged at their current resting place in Maryland

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. (accessed September 15, 2014).

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology essentials: theories, methods, and practice. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 20102010.



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2 thoughts on “Discovery in the Wake of Construction

  1. You mention in your post that after a merchant ship was unearthed at the One World Trade Center construction site, the “archaeologists on hand” immediately began excavating. I find it interesting that the construction crew included archaeologists even before they found any artifacts or material culture in the ground. This preemptive action seems to demonstrate a commitment to properly preserving the past on an institutional level. In this instance, they privilege preservation over commercial interests and ensure that the ship is properly taken care of. I am curious about when and why construction crews began including archaeologists. Did this set-up result from the previous destruction of an archaeological site due to construction? Was this immediate response unique to the Freedom Tower construction site or do policies exist ensuring that every construction crew is equipped to excavate? If so, what do these policies entail?

  2. Archaeologists often monitor construction activities in areas deemed to have the high likelihood of disturbing archaeological deposits. I’ll be doing some site monitoring at the National Park just north of campus later this week. Monitors often document finds and then allow the construction to proceed. Sometimes we advise that construction cease to allow a more complete excavation. Other times the entire construction project will have to be altered to prevent destruction of a site.

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