By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Eleven weeks after a Revolutionary War-era ship emerged from the muck at the World Trade Center site, researchers are still trying to unlock its past.
A shadowy outline of a story has emerged — from the vessel’s birth in a small shipyard to its death in the landfill that overtook the Hudson River — but exact dates and names remain a mystery.
"It’s very interesting," said Michael Pappalardo, senior archaeologist with AKRF, the firm that unearthed the boat. "What happened? That’s a great question."
Pappalardo joined maritime historian Norman Brouwer and conservator Nichole Doub at a panel Thursday night to update the public on their progress and on the work that lies ahead. Sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences and the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, the lecture in 7 World Trade Center drew more than 100 people.
The boat’s modern saga started on July 13, when workers at the World Trade Center noticed an unusually curved piece of wood 25 feet below street level, just south of Liberty Street.
Over the next two weeks, archaeologists dug out a 32-foot long section of the 18th-century boat’s hull, documented it exhaustively, disassembled it and carted it off to the Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory.
Once there, conservators cleaned the mud off the worm-eaten wood — enduring a low-tide stench — and placed it in a carefully calibrated solution to prevent it from deteriorating.
At the same time, Brouwer was sorting through the evidence for clues to the boat’s history.
He noticed that the boat’s floorboards were irregular and "fitted together like a puzzle," suggesting it was built in a small town near a forest, not in one of the major east coast shipyards, which used standardized planks.
Once it set sail, the merchant ship likely spent its days traveling up and down the Atlantic coast, bringing wood and food down to the West Indies and returning with sugar, salt, molasses and rum, Brouwer said.
While in the Caribbean, the boat picked up an infestation of Teredo worms, which ate away at the wood. By 1797, it was buried in the landfill used to extend Manhattan’s shoreline westward.
More information about the boat’s owner and crew could come from the hundreds of artifacts found in and around the boat, including ceramics, musket balls, a buckle, a British button, a coin, animal bones, dozens of shoes and a human hair with a single louse on it. Brouwer also hopes tree experts will be able to date the wood.
Down in Maryland, the preservation process has just begun. To permanently stabilize the wood, some of the larger pieces will have to sit in a chemical solution for up to six years. Only then could the boat could be reassembled for display, Doub said.
Doub, Brouwer and Pappalardo all said the boat provided a rare look into the past, and they noted that if any one thing had been different — the oxygen level in the river clay, the location of the Deutsche Bank building — the boat would never have stayed intact for so long.
"It was purely by chance," Pappalardo said. "It was lucky."