Published: Jul 16, 2010 12:44 PM EDT
Updated: Jul 16, 2010 9:45 AM EDT

NEW YORK (AP) - The ship was buried as junk two centuries ago -

landfill to expand a bustling little island of commerce called

Manhattan. When it re-emerged this week, surrounded by skyscrapers,

it was an instant treasure that popped up from the mud near ground

zero.

A 32-foot piece of the vessel was found in soil 20 feet under

street level, amid noisy bulldozers excavating a parking garage for

the future World Trade Center. Near the site of so many grim finds

- Sept. 11 victims' remains, twisted steel - this discovery was as

unexpected as it was thrilling.

Historians say the ship, believed to date to the 1700s, was

defunct by the time it was used around 1810 to extend the shores of

lower Manhattan.

"A ship is the summit of what you might find under the World

Trade Center - it's exciting!" said Molly McDonald, an

archaeologist who first spotted two pieces of hewn, curved timber -

part of the frame of the ship - peeking out of the muddy soil at

dawn on Tuesday.

By Thursday, she and three colleagues had dug up the hull from

the pit where a section of the new trade center is being built.

A steep, hanging ladder trembled with each step down into

chaotic mounds of dirt, dwarfed all around by Manhattan skyscrapers

rising into the July sun. People sank in the mud as they walked and

grasped pieces of the historic wood for support - touching the

centuries-old ship that may once have sailed the Caribbean,

according to marine historian Norman Brower, who examined it

Thursday.

"It smells like low tide, this muck," said McDonald as she

stood on the weathered planks, sniffing the dank odor that hovered

over them in the hot summer morning.

The ship harbors many mysteries still to be solved: "Where was

it built? How was it used? Why was it sunk?"

McDonald and archaeologist A. Michael Pappalardo made the

discovery on Tuesday at about 6:15 a.m., just as they started their

shift observing construction in the pit at the southern edge of

ground zero. The two work for AKRF, a New York environmental

consulting firm hired to document artifacts discovered at the trade

center site.

"We noticed two curved timbers that a backhoe had dislocated,"

McDonald said. Joined by two more archaeologists, they started

digging with shovels, "and we quickly found the rib of a vessel

and continued to clear it away and expose the hull over the last

two days."

Brower, the historian, works in Mystic, Conn. - renowned for its

historic vessels. He told the archaeologists that it was an

oceangoing vessel that might have sailed the Caribbean, as

evidenced by 18th-century marine organisms that had bored tiny

tunnels in the timber.

The vessel's age will be estimated after the two pieces that

first popped up are tested in a laboratory through dendrochronology

- the science of using tree rings to determine dates and

chronological order. Also unknown is what kind of wood was used to

build the ship.

A 100-pound iron anchor was found a few yards from the hull,

possibly from the old vessel.

There were also traces of human life nearby - "pieces of shoes

all over," said McDonald, who had no idea how they got there.

The ship likely got there because of the effort to extend lower

Manhattan into the Hudson River in the 1700s and 1800s using

landfill. Cribbing usually consisted of logs joined together - much

like a log cabin - but a derelict ship was occasionally used.

The ship discovered Tuesday was weighted down and sunk to the

bottom of the river, as support for new city piers in a part of

Manhattan tied to global commerce and trade.

A similar find emerged a walk away in 1982, when archaeologists

found an 18th-century cargo ship on Water Street.

The remains of the latest discovery will be removed in the

coming days, but the timber is so delicate it's unclear how much of

it will remain intact. The surrounding water acted as a preservant

for the wood for centuries, McDonald said, but the remains began to

deteriorate immediately upon contact with oxygen.

"We're mostly clearing it by hand because it's kind of

fragile," McDonald said, meaning shovels are used. Construction

equipment could come in handy later in the process.

On Thursday, archaeologists were quickly sketching, measuring

and photographing the ship remnants to help them analyze the find

later; the two pieces of timber that signaled the discovery were

taken away immediately. It was not clear from the 32-foot piece how

long the whole ship might have been.

Another fascinating detail might emerge as work progresses:

coins traditionally placed under a vessel's keel block as a symbol

of good fortune and safe travels.

But the team is already feeling pretty lucky. "I kept thinking

of how closely it came to being destroyed," Pappalardo said.

Somehow, the workers operating the bulldozers missed the bulk of

the ship, catching only the two timbers as they excavated ramps

that will connect to an underground parking garage at the rebuilt

trade center.

Within the fenced-off, 16-acre site in downtown Manhattan, steel

for a planned 1,776-foot skyscraper has risen 24 stories. The

memorial to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, a multibillion-dollar

transit hub and a second office tower are under construction. More

office towers and a performing arts center are also part of the

original plan.