Remains of a Revolutionary War-era ship discovered during excavation at New York’s new World Trade Center site are being studied and stored at a world-renowned archaeological conservation facility at Texas A&M University.
With the 10th anniversary of the infamous “9/11″ terrorist attack nearing and a solemn but extensive observance planned at the site of the original World Trade Center, scientists 1,500 miles away will be quietly working to piece together parts of the vessel found at the site of the new WTC. They hope to help answer questions about the ship — its origin, its use and, perhaps, derive the definitive answer about how it ended up where it did.
The remaining portions of the ship were brought to the Conservation Research Laboratory of Texas A&M’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation in light of its extensive work over the past 30 years in handling shipwreck remains from areas throughout the world. It is conducting the WTC preservation work under contract with AKRF, an engineering consulting firm representing the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, noted ship conservator Peter Fix.
Best current estimates are that the ship was built in the 1770s or 80s and was a work vessel, perhaps carrying cargo between the colonies before the Revolutionary War — or during the fight for American independence or perhaps right after the country gained its freedom.
The artifacts have been meticulously documented — photographed from all angles and analyzed digitally — by a Cornell classical archaeology Ph.D. student, Carrie Fulton, who earned her anthropology masters’ degree specializing in nautical archaeology at Texas A&M.
“Documentation is very important for us,” Fix emphasized, noting that a key element of the preservation and restoration process is gaining a better understanding of the ship’s architecture and purpose. “With each discovery a new question can be posed, or pieces of evidence uncovered that can help fill-in lesser known gaps in our collective history. That is why a find like this one is so significant. Additionally, if the timbers are to be reconstructed and exhibited, they could provide future generations with a tangible connection to their maritime past.”
One of the unusual aspects of the ship is that its hull was built primarily with iron nails. The typical vessel of the 1770s was built with wooden pegs, noted Fulton, who made a quick trip back to Aggieland specifically to inspect the relics and make documentations that she will use in her doctoral research.
How the wooden hull ended up at the World Trade Center site has been a matter of considerable conjecture since it was discovered last year more than 20 feet below street level. Some romantics wondered if it was wrecked during a deadly storm or if foul play was involved — perhaps with pirates having had a role in the vessel’s demise.
The prevailing theory is much less romantic. The most likely scenario is that the ship was deliberately sunk at what was then part of the Hudson River as a means of expanding lower Manhattan. Fulton refers to it as a “derelict ship.” The theory is that its wood served as junk to catch and hold dirt in targeted areas of the river — for what might centuries later be considered an urban-development project.
The ship’s likely less glamorous end and resting place was in a sense fortunate, note New York authorities who were first on the scene. They point out the “oxygen-less” Hudson preserved the artifacts to a degree that would not have been possible in a less-polluted environment.
With the ship’s original name never likely to be known, it has been dubbed the “SS Adrian” in honor of the superintendent of the construction crew who assisted with the excavation of the structure. Excavation work was diverted away from the area when the ship’s remains were uncovered and did not resume until archaeologists completed their on-site recovery and analysis work.
The remains were initially sent to a lab in Maryland, but the decision was subsequently made to ship them to Texas A&M because of its experience in handling and preserving shipwreck artifacts from sites around the world, and staff from the Conservation Research Lab continue to act as conservation consultants to the archaeologists working at Ground Zero.
Waterlogged, degraded wood must undergo treatment in vats of preservative fluids before moving to the actual restoration stage — a step that could include a freeze-drying process to maintain the artifacts’ size and shape. Fix explained that without the special handling the centuries-old fragile wood could disintegrate or significantly shrink in size when exposed to air.
Contact: Lane Stephenson, News & Information Services, (979) 845-4662