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An aerial shot of Ground Zero on 23rd September 2021

How did a shipwreck end up beneath Ground Zero?

Learn about the ghostly shipwreck discovered beneath the site of the biggest ever terrorist attack to take place on US soil.

Image: An 18th-century shipwreck was discovered during Ground Zero excavation in 2010 | Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Almost nine years after the terrorist attack which destroyed the Twin Towers, killed thousands of people and shook the world, an astonishing discovery was made. In July 2010, the remains of an 18th-century ship were uncovered three floors below street level.

A ghost ship surfaces

A team of construction workers was busy excavating the site of the future World Trade Centre when something truly remarkable emerged from the rubble.

In amongst the discarded animal bones, ceramic pottery and countless pairs of shoes, the workers uncovered the partial skeleton of an 18th-century ship. Archaeologists and excavation experts were swiftly summoned to the site, both to minimise delays to the construction project and to help preserve the find as best they could.

It quickly became clear that the curved structure formed a 10m-long fragment of a boat which was deemed to be two or three times that size in full. But what exactly was it doing buried under layers of urban fill and debris accrued across several centuries? Was this the precursor to yet another 9/11 conspiracy theory?

To find out the origins of the mysterious vessel and make the most educated of guesses about its intriguing story, a painstaking research process was put into motion.

A delicate operation

Time was of the essence when it came to excavating the hull of the ship. That is because the putrid-smelling sludge in which it had been encased had actually worked to preserve it for hundreds of years.

The thick ooze of organic matter that enveloped the decaying timber left little room for oxygen, which meant that microbes were not able to devour the ship over time. Indeed, as soon as the find was exposed to the open air, it was in danger of disintegration.

What’s more, the moisture contained within the wooden boards was essential to their survival. If these molecules of water were allowed to evaporate, they would have warped, cracked and ripped the ship apart.

Thankfully, the day in question was a rainy one. ‘If the sun had been out, the wood would already have started to fall apart,’ explained Doug Mackey, chief regional archaeologist for New York.

To counteract such a devastating outcome, the carefully cleaned remains of the ship were then suspended in purified water for indefinite storage.

Piecing together the puzzle

To gather as much information as possible about its origins, the research team analysed everything they could that was found on or in the vicinity of the ship. This included the animal furs and skins which were lying at its bottom, the nuts, pits and seeds scattered around the area and even the microscopic parasites which had burrowed deep into the wood itself.

In fact, this last discovery did provide an important clue. Identified as Lyrodus pedicellatus, a tiny clam which burrows its way into timber, the little critter is only found in warmer waters.

This suggested that the ship was used to ferry goods around the Caribbean and it is likely that the majority of the structural damage to the wood was sustained in this region.

Breakthrough at last

After several years of painstaking work, a breakthrough in the investigation finally came after some of the fragments were sent to Columbia University’s Tree Ring Laboratory, just 20 miles from where the ship was discovered.

These highly trained specialists slowly dried the timbers in a cold room, before slicing thick chunks of them to explore their tree rings. The patterns on the rings indicated that the trees used to make the ship were likely felled in or around 1773.

What’s more, the pattern also strongly resembled that found in a previous study of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, which was constructed between 1732 and 1753. As such, it is posited that the ship was built in this area, which makes sense because Philadelphia was one of the main shipbuilding cities in America in that era.

As for how it ended up in the middle of New York City, the area beneath the Twin Towers once formed part of the Hudson River. The ship, which was likely already compromised due to the parasite infection, was probably scuttled in the riverbed to act as landfill material to continue building New York City by artificially extending Manhattan.

If you are thirsty for more shipwreck mysteries, why not check out these seven deep-sea enigmas from throughout history?