A Boston building site came to a dramatic standstill in May 2016 when construction workers uncovered an astonishing artifact. Indeed, the find was so rare and amazing that it set the city chattering with excitement.
Located within the city’s prestigious Seaport District is a thriving hub for high-rise condos, upscale eateries and towering office blocks. In fact, billions have dollars have been invested in the waterfront zone. However, the surprise discovery made here during new renovations was, in historical terms, priceless.
Skanska, the company hired to conduct the construction, is no stranger to big works. After all, it’s reportedly the world’s fifth largest construction company. Its commercial development projects, meanwhile, span the globe and include groundbreaking structures such as the World Trade Center Transportation Hub and the MetLife Stadium.
In this case, Skanska had been commissioned 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.
Despite national and state preservation laws, though, the company was not legally obligated to halt construction work when it stumbled upon the important find. But it did, for a week, because it’s not every day that you make the chance discovery of a shipwreck from the 19th century.
“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. Indeed, the find was so unique and fascinating that it would require expert help to unravel its mysteries.
“We were extremely fortunate that they saw the importance of the shipwreck,” 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.”
However, the remains of the ship were far too delicate to move. With a limited window of opportunity, then, the archaeologists raced against the clock to learn everything they could before construction work was scheduled to recommence.
The archaeologists carefully set about documenting the 50-foot-long ship with stereoscopic cameras. They dug trenches, mapped the interior planks, and uncovered the bow, the inner and outer hull and the mast step. Piece by piece, they started to fit the puzzle together.
Plus, a team of experts from Cambridge’s Institute of Digital Archaeology even flew back early from the Venice Biennial Exhibition to make a 3D scan of the wreck. The team is experienced with documenting and reconstructing archaeological wonders, including artifacts that ISIS destroyed in the Middle East.
The final 3D image will serve as a permanent record of the ship after Skanska has completed its construction work. The image, along with whatever parts of the ship the archaeologists could successfully recover in time, will likely be included in a public display within the new building.
The initial investigations revealed that the top of the ship had been lost in a fire and that only the bottom remained. Nonetheless, the archaeological team recovered several intriguing artifacts: broken ceramic vessels, cutlery, burned dishes and building equipment.
A collection of loose nails enabled 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 had it ended up buried in Boston?
The first major clue was the discovery of its abandoned cargo: 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.
Moreover, the discovery of a barrel lid marked “Rockland” hints that the ship may have sailed from Rockland, Maine, which was once home to a thriving lime industry. The barrels were probably meant for use in Boston’s 19th-century construction boom but never made it to shore.
After all, the ship sunk in Boston Harbor’s mudflats, then known as the Dorchester Flats. During the 1880s, the area was transformed into landfill, which explains why the ship was discovered on land nearly a quarter of a mile from the water’s edge.
One possible explanation for the vessel’s destruction is that it caught fire after its cargo of lime mixed with water to produce highly flammable acetylene. It is not known if the ship was deliberately run aground or whether it crashed into the flats by accident.
Joe Bagley saw an interesting connection 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.
The ship is not the first to have been uncovered in Boston, and there are thought to be numerous 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.
However, the ship is the first to have been found in that part of the city, and it is only the second to have been found on land. Plus, thanks to Bagley and his team and the generosity of Skanska, it has now been documented for all time. “We have essentially the entire blueprint of the ship,” he told Boston.com.