150-Year-Old Ship Uncovered by Boston Construction Workers

In May 2016, a Boston building site came to a dramatic standstill, when construction workers uncovered something amazing. It was an artifact so astonishing and rare, that it set the city alight with excitement.

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Although billions of dollars have been invested in this thriving waterfront area of Boston’s Seaport District, the surprise discovery made here during new renovations was, by historical terms, priceless.
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Photo: bostonarchaeo @ Instagram

The amazing find set the Seaport District of Boston alight with excitement. How did such a historical artifact find its way underneath this building project?
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Skanska, the company hired to conduct the construction, was to build a 17-story office building with 400,000-square feet of space within walking distance of the piers lining the Seaport District. It was just the latest of their many contributions to the New England architectural landscape.
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Although there are national and state preservation laws, the company was not legally obligated to halt construction work when it stumbled upon their important find. But they did. It’s not every day that you make the chance discovery of a shipwreck from the 19th century. And for a week, work was halted.
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“You certainly come across a lot of interesting things when you do below-grade excavation, but I’ve never seen anything like this in my career,” Shawn Hurley, a Skanska executive, told WBZ-TV. The find was so unique and fascinating that it would require expert help to unravel its mysteries and to discover how it got there
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“We were extremely fortunate that they saw the importance of the shipwreck,” said Joe Bagley, one of five archaeologists entrusted with investigating the site, told Boston.com. “We’re very happy to have the opportunity to document it.”
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With more unfolded discovery, they realized that the remains of the ship were far too delicate to move. With a limited window of opportunity, the archaeologists raced against the clock to learn everything they could before construction work was scheduled to recommence the following week.
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The archaeologists set about carefully documenting the 50-foot long ship with stereoscopic cameras. They dug trenches around the outside, mapped the interior planks, uncovered the bow, the inner and outer hull, and the mast step. Slowly and piece-by-piece, they started to fit this ancient puzzle together.
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Photo: bostonarchaeo @ Instagram

Due to the rare find and the time constraints, a team of experts from the Cambridge’s Institute of Digital Archaeology flew back early from the Venice Biennial Exhibition to make a 3D scan of the wreck. The team is very experienced with documenting and reconstructing archaeological wonders, including artifacts that ISIS destroyed in the Middle East.
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The final 3D image will become a permanent record of the ship once Skanska has completed its construction work. The image, along with artifacts and whatever parts of the ship the archaeologists could successfully recover in time, will likely be included in a public display when the new building is completed.
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The initial investigations found that the top of the ship had been lost in a fire and that only the bottom part remained. The archaeological team still managed to recover several intriguing artifacts including broken ceramic vessels, cutlery, burned dishes and building equipment.
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A collection of loose nails found, helped the archaeologists to put a date on the ship. “It looks like it’s a mid to late 19th-century sloop,” Bagley told The Guardian. But what had been the ship’s purpose? And how on earth had it ended up buried in Boston?
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The first big clue was the discovery of the ships abandoned cargo. They found barrels of lime. Since Roman times, lime has been used to mix concrete. In the 19th century, it was also used in the manufacturing of paper.
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The discovery of a barrel lid marked ‘Rockland’ hinted that the ship may have sailed from Rockland, Maine, which was once home to a very thriving lime industry. The barrels were probably meant for use in Boston’s 19th-century construction boom, but unfortunately never quite made it to shore.
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The ship sunk in Boston Harbor’s mudflats, which back then, was known as the Dorchester Flats. During the 1880s, the area was transformed to landfill, which explains why the ship was discovered on land nearly a quarter of a mile from the water’s edge.
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One possible explanation for its destruction is that the ship caught fire after its cargo of lime mixed with water which produced highly flammable acetylene. It’s unknown if the ship was deliberately run aground or whether it crashed into the flats by accident.
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Joe Bagley saw a very interesting coincidental link between the ship carrying building materials and being discovered more than a century later on a Boston building site. “They’re really part of the same narrative of Boston growing as a city,” he told the The Associated Press.
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This ship though is not actually the first to have been uncovered in Boston, and there are thought to be numerous more wrecks under the harbor. “To me what it says is that history is everywhere in Boston — sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find it,” Bagley told reporters.
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The ship is the first to have been found in that part of the city, and it’s only the second to have been found on dry land. With thanks to Bagley and his team as well as the generosity of Skanska, it has now been documented for all to see. “We have essentially the entire blueprint of the ship,” he told Boston.com.
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H/T LifeDaily

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