By Dan McDonald
ACUSHNET Artifacts from a historic shipwreck unearthed in the upper harbor are likely more than two centuries old and may be remnants of a vessel that sailed West Indies or East Coast trade routes during colonial times, according to the EPA.
The timbers recovered during prep work for the dredging of the Superfund site included the keel of the vessel, frames or ribs of the ship and exterior hull planking fragments, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The artifacts are thought to be from the late 1700s or early 1800s and were found in about 5 feet of water directly across from the Aerovox mill, closer to the Acushnet side of the harbor.
Charring on the timbers likely means the ship was burned, according to the EPA.
It could also link the wreckage to a 1778 British attack on New Bedford and Acushnet when 30 to 70 ships were torched, according to an EPA slide show presentation.
Not everyone agrees with such a theory, however, and the EPA acknowledged Thursday there “was no conclusive connection made to this event.”
Dr. Gregory J. Galer, the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s vice president of collections and exhibitions, does not believe the timbers were related to the attack because of where they were found, upstream from where the attack took place.
Galer said the charring on the timber does not necessarily mean the remnants of the ship are connected to the attack.
“It wasn’t uncommon for old wrecks to be pushed up river and burned intentionally or unintentionally,” said Galer.
Arthur P. Motta Jr., communications director for the museum, agreed, saying timbers were found much farther north than the original British accounts of the attack and torching of ships in 1778.
According to the EPA, the wood’s saw marks, the hull’s shape and size, the use of “old growth” wood, compass timbers and faceted, hand-cut tree nails suggest the ship was wrecked in the late 1700s.
The timbers consisted of white oak and hickory, which suggests the vessel was likely built between Southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states, according to the EPA.
The hull’s shape, which was designed to have increased cargo capacity, suggests the vessel could have been a merchant ship.
The name of the vessel has yet to be determined but, according to the EPA, the wreck suggests the ship was a 70-foot-long, 100-ton merchantman sloop or schooner used in the inter-colonial and West Indies trades.
Forty-five timbers were recovered, including five keel fragments, one sternpost, one stem, 15 floor timbers, 10 large planking fragments, three cant frames, nine futtocks and one miscellaneous timber.
Other artifacts recovered include one intact hearth brick, 25 brick fragments, two vegetable-fiber rope fragments, a broken base of a glass bottle, an iron barrel hoop, parts of a wooden bucket, wooden barrel and wooden box and a leather shoe sole.
New Bedford-based Fathom Research LLC has been hired to document and assess both the wreckage and the site. A call to Fathom late Thursday afternoon was not returned.
The timbers were recovered in July 2009. After more than a year of study, archeologists confirmed the timbers as historically significant last fall.
For at least three decades during the 20th century, two manufacturing facilities dumped industrial wastes into the harbor. The dumping resulted in sediment that is highly contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls commonly referred to as PCBs and heavy metals.
Last year marked the EPA’s seventh year of hydraulic dredging and more than 200,000 of the 900,000 cubic yards of PCB-laden sediment has been addressed, according to the EPA.
The timbers were found during the “pre-dredge removal process, where work crews remove harbor bottom large debris,” according to the EPA. The pieces of wood are currently held at EPA’s Sawyer Street Project Facility.
New Bedford Mayor Scott W. Lang is confident the “ship will tell a story.” He said the findings prove the harbor is “the equivalent of a maritime archeological site and leads us to believe there might be more” such wrecks.
Jennifer Nersesian, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park superintendent, called the find a “really exciting discovery that just hints at the potential of what else might be out there.”
February 18, 2011 12:00 AM
By Dan McDonald