Rings and worms tell the tale of a shipwreck found at Ground Zero

Kim Martineau, Lamont-Doherty, provided courtesy of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation

By Lynne Peeples - Scientific American

Researchers were stunned to find an 18th-century ship that had been unearthed by construction workers at the World Trade Center where the Twin Towers once stood. With great care they followed clues in the well-preserved wood to trace the craft's history to the era of the American Revolution.

Twenty-three duct-taped packages chilled in a refrigerator at Columbia University's Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., for months before scientists finally got up the nerve last December to pull them out and peel them open.

Neil Pederson's team had initially chickened out. His tree-ring experts knew that the 200-year-old fragments inside were of interest to more than just their fellow dendrochronologists.

That's because the packages were the precious raw data derived from an unusual discovery last July made by workers at the World Trade Center construction site in New York City. Three stories below street level, buried among rotten piers and other landfill once used to extend Manhattan's shoreline, emerged a well-preserved skeleton of an old wooden ship.

The aged wooden planks were in a very delicate state, making any investigation into their age and origin especially daunting.

In the days that followed the find archaeologists overseeing the excavation at the massive construction site carefully documented and pulled from the pungent mud about nine meters of what remained of the USS Adrian—named after the construction site supervisor. The original vessel is estimated to have been at least twice that long.

But the rest of the ship's story remained buried. Where was it built, and when? Where did it sail, and why?

"This shipwreck gives us a glimpse of the past—the last chapter in a complex story. We can start rebuilding and rewriting those other chapters of a ship's life by doing things like dendrochronology," says tree-ring specialist Pearce Paul Creasman of the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

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