By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Archaeologists began disassembling the World Trade Center boat Monday morning, carefully separating wooden planks that have been joined since the 18th century, in the hope of unlocking its mysterious past.
“It’s lovely to look at, but we’ll get much more information by taking it apart,” said Diane Dallal, director of archaeology for AKRF, the firm studying the boat.
“We’ll see how each timber is joined together [and how] it was made. Those things tell a story.”
AKRF is working double shifts to remove the boat within the next two to four days, so its presence does not delay construction at the World Trade Center site.
Port Authority workers unearthed the 30-foot section of the ship’s hull two weeks ago while excavating for the Vehicle Security Center. The boat sat just 20 to 30 feet below the street level but was undisturbed for about 200 years as part of the landfill that extended lower Manhattan’s shoreline.
On Monday, archaeologists painstakingly tagged and logged each plank of the boat before removing it.
“We’re recording everything as if each piece is going to fall apart — just in case,“ said Warren Riess, a professor at the University of Maine who is working on the boat for AKRF.
Workers wrapped each piece of wood in polyethylene foam and plastic sheeting, to keep the moisture in and the sun out, and then loaded them into a dumpster.
The hundreds of timbers will go to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, about 50 miles outside of Washington, D.C., where archaeologists will study them further.
After that, the lengthy preservation process will begin, said Nicole Doub, head conservator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.
First, the lab will submerge the timbers in polyethylene glycol, a wax-like substance, for two to three years, allowing the wax to fully penetrate the wood, Doub said. Then, the lab will put the timbers through a vacuum freeze-dryer, which will stabilize the wood by forcing out all the remaining water.
Only then will it be safe to reassemble and display the boat, Doub said.
The Port Authority has not decided what will ultimately happen to the boat, said Steve Coleman, Port Authority spokesman.
The project’s archaeologists have already begun uncovering details of the boat’s past.
Riess, the University of Maine professor, said the boat likely carried cargo along the East Coast, traveling perhaps as far as Barbados but not across the Atlantic.
The thickness of the boat’s oak planks suggests that it was for heavy cargo, Riess said. While it’s possible the boat occasionally picked up slaves in its travels, slave ships were usually built to be speedier, Riess said.
Private shipbuilders in the 18th century did not draw plans or diagrams, for fear that their trade secrets would get out, so this boat provides a rare opportunity to see how these vessels were put together, Riess said. He also studied the boat that was found on Water Street in 1982, which he said was more intact.
At the World Trade Center site Monday afternoon, about 10 archaeologists and preservationists were working the first shift, staggering their lunch breaks so the ship never sat idle. Dallal, with AKRF, predicted that no one would want to go home when the shift was over.
“They’ll want to stay [for the second shift],” she said. “It’s that exciting. It’s just really unique.”