6 things archaeologists have learned about the Seaport District shipwreck

Inner hull with mast step that would be where the mast was held
The inner hull of the ship where a mast was held. –City of Boston Archaeology Program

Archaeologists cut cross-sections Thursday through the interior of a hull of a shipwreck recently discovered by workers on a construction site in the Seaport District.

Five archaeologists, including Boston’s city archaeologist Joe Bagley, had to gather as much information as possible about the wreck at 121 Seaport Boulevard by Friday, to allow the construction project by Skanska to continue.

“It’s a really, really, well-documented site,” Bagley said of the work done, which also included making cross-sections of lime barrels found in the boat.

Here are six things the archaeologists have learned about the wreck, according to Bagley.

1. The ship, which was about 50-feet long, had at least two masts.

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2. It likely went down sometime between 1850 and 1880. Bagley said household items recovered, including a small stack of plates, a fork, knife, and nails, are all “pretty datable” and will help researchers determine a more specific date. The ship was found in an area that used to be mudflats, called “Dorchester Flats,” which were concreted-in in 1880 to make more buildable land.

Intact 19th century fork found next to a stack of burned dishes in the rear hull
An intact 19th century fork found next to a stack of burned dishes in the rear of the ship’s hull. —City of Boston Archaeology Program

3. The boat itself is older than the date it went down. Bagley said the ship could have been made in the late 1700s or early 1800s.

“Lime ships had a tendency to burst into flames,” he said, so older ships would be used instead of newer vessels in case water got on the lime and started a blaze.

4. There was a fire on board the ship. Whether it was a deliberately set to make the wreckage smaller, started by the lime, or otherwise connected to the sinking of the vessel still has to be figured out, he said.

5. The lime barrels burned from the top down.

Bagley said it will take more research to determine if the lime would have burned in a different direction if the barrels had caught fire first.

Lime barrel lid with "Rockland" on it indicating the
A lime barrel lid with “Rockland” on it indicating a connection to the 19th century industry in Maine. —City of Boston Archaeology Program

6. “Rockland” was found stamped across one of the lids of the lime barrels by archaeologists at the site. This indicates the ship was likely arriving from Rockland, Maine, which was a major production area for lime, according to Bagley.

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“It was brought down, but never quite made it to Boston,” he said.

Bagley said the sampling of artifacts from the wreck, except the barrel lid, have been transported to the Public Archeology Laboratory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. And on Friday, Harvard and Oxford University’s Institute for Digital Archeology will help document a 3D image of the wreck since the entire ship cannot be preserved.

Archaeologists excavating the bow of the wreck.
Archaeologists excavating the bow of the wreck. —City of Boston Archaeology Program

“Archeology is like an iceberg, the date is just the tip,” Bagley said.

Next, Bagley and others involved in the documentation of the site will be looking for any evidence to nail down the questions of how old the ship is, where it came from, and why it sunk.

He said the two days spent at the site have been positive despite the rush because it shows what can happen when developers and government agencies are in agreement with what should be done with a historical find.

“We’ve all been trying to figure it out together, since none of us have dealt with something like this before,” he said. “Everyone is on the same page,” he said.”

wreck
—City of Boston Archaeology Program

 

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