NEW YORK — The ship was buried as junk two centuries ago — landfill to expand a bustling little island of commerce called Manhattan. When it re-emerged this week, surrounded by skyscrapers, it was an instant treasure that popped up from the mud near ground zero.
A 32-foot piece of the vessel was discovered in soil 20 feet under street level, amid noisy bulldozers excavating a parking garage for the future World Trade Center. Near the site of so many grim finds — Sept. 11 victims' remains, twisted steel — this one was as unexpected as it was thrilling.
Historians say the ship, believed to date to the 1700s, was defunct by the time it was used around 1810 to extend the shores of lower Manhattan.
"A ship is the summit of what you might find under the World Trade Center — it's exciting!" said Molly McDonald, an archaeologist who first spotted two pieces of hewn, curved timber — part of the frame of the ship — peeking out of the muddy soil at dawn on Tuesday.
By Thursday, she and three colleagues had dug up the hull from a muddy pit where parts of the new trade center are being built.
A steep, hanging ladder trembled with each step down into chaotic mounds of dirt, dwarfed all around by Manhattan skyscrapers rising into the July sun. People sank in the mud as they walked and grasped pieces of the historic wood for support — touching the centuries-old ship that may once have sailed the Caribbean, according to marine historian Norman Brower, who examined it Thursday.
"It smells like low tide, this muck," said McDonald as she stood on the weathered planks, sniffing the dank odor that hovered over them in the hot summer morning.
The ship harbors many mysteries still to be solved: "Where was it built? How was it used? Why was it sunk?"
McDonald and archaeologist A. Michael Pappalardo made the discovery on Tuesday at about 6:15 a.m., just as they started their shift observing construction in a pit at the southern edge of ground zero. The two work for AKRF, a New York environmental consulting firm hired to document artifacts discovered at the trade center site.
"We noticed two curved timbers that a backhoe had dislocated," McDonald said. Joined by two more archaeologists, they started digging with shovels, "and we quickly found the rib of a vessel and continued to clear it away and expose the hull over the last two days."
Brower, the historian, works in Mystic, Conn. —renowned for its historic vessels. He told the archaeologists that it was an oceangoing vessel that might have sailed the Caribbean, as evidenced by 18th-century marine organisms that had bored tiny tunnels in the timber.
The ship likely got there because of the effort to extend lower Manhattan into the Hudson River in the 1700s and 1800s using landfill. Cribbing usually consisted of logs joined together — much like a log cabin — but a derelict ship was occasionally used.