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Home - A Buried Treasure – Winter 2010

As far as shipwrecks go, there was nothing fancy about the vessel found this summer at the construction site of the World Trade Center in New York City.

It wasn’t an old military ship with heavy artillery. It wasn’t a great cargo vessel laden with exotic riches from another continent. And it wasn’t a ship that might have been used by pirates.

Yet what University of Maine marine archaeologist Warren Riess discovered several months ago when he examined the boat was, in a sense, more remarkable than anything he could have discovered about a warship, ocean liner or pirate vessel.

Riess, a national expert in marine archaeology of the New England and mid-Atlantic regions, believes the remains, found about 200 yards from where the World Trade Center’s South Tower stood before the terrorist events of Sept. 11, 2001, is a light coaster from the late 18th or early 19th centuries that likely carried goods up and down the East Coast to a growing populace of the post-Revolutionary War era.

Analysis of the ship’s remains is ongoing, but Riess thinks it could be just the third vessel of its kind and age to have been discovered. The other two were found elsewhere on the East Coast.

In its time, the ship wouldn’t have been considered a significant vessel, which is the reason why no drawings or models have survived. Today, however, that insignificance is exactly why the find is so exciting for the nautical archaeological community.

For an archaeologist, it’s the difference between finding a buried treasure of gold and a buried trove of broken pottery.

One find tells a fantastic tale. The other simply tells a tale of daily life.

“The most interesting thing is we don’t know much about these ships,” says Riess, a research associate professor in UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences whose work in marine archaeology includes several shipwrecks and the Penobscot Expedition of 1779.

“The warships, the government ships, there are all kinds of drawings and models of those. But the everyday coasters of this time period, we’ve only found three of them, and we don’t have drawings in any detail. So to be able to study this is very important, because it tells us about everyday life at that time. It tells us about the 99.5 percent of the people who weren’t recorded, and it tells us about the level of technology at the time.”

Image Description: Marine archaeologist Warren Riess at the World Trade Center site in New York City, where the remains of a light coaster ship from the late 18th or early 19th centuries were unearthed this past summer.

Image Description: buried treasure

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