Plenty of archaeologists have at least one story of discovering a relic in a puzzling location. How did that, they wonder, end up here? But few finds are more mind-boggling than what experts at the cleanup at New York City’s Ground Zero came across.
The city was devastated following attacks on the World Trade Center, but nobody could deny their curiosity when workers came across an entire shipwreck beneath the rubble! Even the most veteran scientists were left scratching their heads over how it ever nestled itself under perhaps the most iconic plot of land in the world. And they were determined to find out.
Any archaeologist will agree, in many cases, the bigger the ancient find, the more excitement stirs in their bellies. This is why when centuries-old shipwrecks are discovered scientists, and marine biologists buzz with elation. Of course, this one had the rare distinction of being in the middle of an urban jungle.
These two looming towers, as many know, were the Twin Towers located in lower Manhattan. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, crumbled them, but then a new building emerged. Of course, this was no easy feat.
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For years after the attacks, construction crews worked tirelessly to build this incredible structure, the Freedom Tower. But it was during the early stages of prepping for this undertaking that stunned archaeologists .
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As you can imagine, cleaning up the absolute chaos at Ground Zero following the attacks was a nearly inconceivable task. But, construction crews and archaeologists united in an epic mission to rebuild what was lost.
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Massive chunks of concrete, metal beams, and huge splintered shards of wood were just some of the items making up the building’s rubble. But, once excavators dug deeper, they noticed different types of debris.
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Archaeologists and scientists assisting the effort helped carefully rummage through a plethora of animal bones, dozens of mismatched sneakers, empty glass bottles, and ceramic dishes. All this would need thorough clearing for eventual use by the Freedom Tower.
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The original plans required the entire plot of land cleared out and dug up to create an underground parking garage. But, as more and more dirt was churned up, workers found something that halted everything.
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A wooden structure slowly began to appear. This wasn’t just a few errant planks of wood either — this was a large intact structure of some kind. Once workers cleared away all the dirt, they realized they found a ship!
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Scraping away centuries of dirt, they uncovered an entire frame of a wrecked vessel. The wood was so fragile that the air itself could inflict serious damage, so the pieces were quickly excavated and sent for testing to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.
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The rings in the wood indicated to scientists the vessel was likely built around 1773. The timestamp, however, wasn’t nearly as intriguing as the big connection professionals theorized next.
There was a good possibly the timber used for the vessel was the exact same material used to construct Independence Hall, the building where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed. Of course, further investigating was necessary.
More samples were then transported to the Tree Ring Laboratory at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. Here, large chunks were analyzed under microscopes to really determine the rings’ origins.
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As initially thought, the rings indicated the trees were cut down in 1773, and some of them were upwards of 100 years old at that point. The next step was finding a match between the ring patterns and the region where they were harvested.
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Dario Martin-Benito, a scientist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, said, “What makes the tree-ring patterns in a certain region look very similar, in general, is climate.” This knowledge helped narrow things down immensely.
The keel of the ship contained hickory, which meant the trees originated in eastern North America. And, the signature rings told Dario’s team the trees very closely resembled those found in the Philadelphia area during the 1700s.
“Philadelphia was one of the most important shipbuilding cities in the U.S. at the time. And they had plenty of wood so it made lots of sense that the wood could come from there,” said Dario. But what caused the wreck?
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While the truth isn’t clear, some scientists speculated that due to a discovery of holes burrowed in the wood by “shipworms” (Lyrodus pedicellatus), theycould have damaged the material beyond repair, thus leading to its imminent demise.
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As to why this hull was submerged in Manhattan, experts are divided. The city could have buried it to help fortify its coastline, or the worm-eaten ship could have been simply forgotten. The debate goes on.
Experts never found any clear-cut answers on why the ship ended up lodged into the earth off the coast of Manhattan, and unfortunately, the question “why?” has haunted many archaeological expeditions for years. As they looked to other historic wrecks, these archaeologists knew there were few easy answers.
Some lost ships perplex the world’s greatest minds for generations. Constructed in 1813, the Terror was a British naval ship that specialized in destruction. Armed with two heavy mortars and ten cannons, the bombing vessel was jam-packed with kind of firepower that truly gave meaning to its name.
The Terror played a key role in the War of 1812, taking part in the bombardment of Stonington, Connecticut, in 1814. A year later, the shipprovided support during the Battle of Fort Peter as well as the attack on St. Marys, Georgia.
After the war, the Terror was decommissioned until 1828 when it was called to serve in the Mediterranean. The vessel suffered damage near Lisbon, Portugal, shortly after beginning its patrol and was removed from service thereafter.
But the Terror found new life in the mid-1830s when it was recommissioned as a polar exploration vessel. With its sturdy frame and powerful engine, the Terror seemed capable of traversing even the most treacherous of arctic terrains.
This confidence was put to the test in 1836 when Captain George Back helmed the Terror on an expedition to Hudson Bay. Despite being well-equipped for the journey, the vessel wound up trapped in sea ice for ten months before returning to port.
The Terror‘s second expedition in 1840 under James Clark Ross proved more fruitful, as the ship and its companion vessel, the HMS Erebus, completed a three-year journey to Antarctica. Mount Terror, a dormant volcano on Ross Island, was even named in the ship’s honor.
In May 1845, Sir John Franklin led the Terror and the Erebus on an expedition across the Northwest Passage, a feat that’d never been accomplished before. The journey looked promising at the start, though after being spotted in Baffin Bay in August, the ships vanished without a trace.
A series of search efforts were launched to locate the missing ships, though neither the vessels nor Franklin and his crew were ever found. Then, in 1859, a note was discovered in a stack of rocks on King William Island that revealed the startling fate of the expedition.
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Dated April 1848, the note explained that both the Terror and the Erebus had become trapped in ice in the Victoria Strait, forcing the crews to abandon ship. The survivors attempted to trek to a fur-trading post some 600 miles away though quickly perished from starvation and exposure.
More than 100 years after the note’s discovery, the remains of a number of crewmen were located on King William Island. Autopsies of the bodies showed that, in addition to hypothermia and lack of food, the men also suffered from lead poisoning and botulism, likely a result of tainted rations.
In the late 20th century, Inuit researchers discovered that cannibalism may have played a role in the demise of the Terror and Erebus crews. Cut marks on the skeletal remains of several crew members suggested that the men may have resorted to eating one another to survive.
Yet one question remained — where were the ships? And for that matter, could they even be salvaged? After spending more than a century beneath the frigid waters of the Arctic, there was no telling what condition they’d be in if found.
The answer to that question came two decades later, when wreck of the Erebus was discovered off the coast of King William Island in 2014. Then, in 2016, the Terror was located 45 miles away in a body of water aptly called Terror Bay.
Archaeologists were eager to explore the lost wrecks, though it wasn’t until 2019 that they acquired the technology to do so. Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the researchers began a systematic exploration of the ships.
Searching the various cabins and compartments of the vessels, the archaeologists were blown away by how well-preserved everything was. Cabinets were closed and filled with liquor, furniture sat in place, and even paper maps remained taut and readable.
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“The impression we witnessed when exploring the HMS Terror is of a ship only recently deserted by its crew, seemingly forgotten by the passage of time,” said ROV pilot Ryan Harris.
The captain’s cabin proved to be the biggest treasure trove, containing maps, a tripod, and several thermometers. Cabinets filled with plates and cutlery were also discovered, their contents still polished and colorful despite spending decades beneath the sea.
But how was this possible? According to the researchers, the Arctic conditions created the perfect environment for preservation. Between the zero-degree water temperature, lack of natural light, and sedimentation, the artifacts had very little chance to decompose.
This exploration marks the first many in an effort to recover all artifacts from the wreckages. By analyzing these objects, researchers hope to learn more about how and why Franklin’s expedition met its tragic end.
“The excellent condition of the ship will, I hope, mean that there will soon be answers to so many questions about the fate of the Franklin Expedition, shrouded in mystery since 1845,” said British High Commissioner to Canada Susan Le Jeune d’Allegeershecque.
Since the fateful sinking of the Terror and the Erebus, more than a handful of other ships have also met a watery grave.The SS America, for instance, was originally sold to become a hotel off Phuket, Thailand, though it never made it there.
While its base was still in excellent condition, the ship could no longer run properly and was set to be towed across the ocean for 100 days. But, the towlines broke, and, despite the crew’s best efforts, the ship was left adrift.
On January 18, 1992, it ran aground off the west coast of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands where it slowly disintegrated over time. Only a relatively small section of the bow, as well as the keel of the vessel, were still visible at low tide.
2. Desert Ships in Mo’ynoq, Uzbekistan: The last place you’d expect to find a shipwreck is the desert, but there are plenty to be found outside of Mo’ynoq, Uzbekistan. It was once a busy Soviet fishing port on the Aral Sea — once one of the four largest lakes in the world — but today, nothing but desert remains.
What once was a 26,300 square mile body of water has dried up when the rivers feeding it were diverted for irrigation purposes. It has since shrunk to less than 10% of its original size and is considered one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters of all time.
The ships are located 100 miles from the current shore, creating a surreal sight for anyone who finds them. While the ships themselves don’t seem to be haunted, Mo’ynoq has become a ghost town of abandoned fish industries. Pretty eerie…
3. SS Antilla in Aruba, The Caribbean: This German cargo ship was launched in 1939 but didn’t live a long life… it was built for trade between Germany and the Caribbean and thus named after the Dutch islands, which are referred to as “The Antillen.”
On May 10th, 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, so the Dutch government immediately ordered the seizure of all German ships. However, before the Dutch marines could execute their attack, the Germans began to scuttle, or purposely sink, the Antilla.
One crewman locked himself in the engine room, opened her seacocks, and climbed out through the funnel, while others set fire to several parts of the ship. Sixty years later, she became a popular scuba diving spot.
4. HMS E5 in the North Sea, The Netherlands: The Antilla was not the only ship that led a short life due to warfare. The English E-class submarine was on its way to rescue survivors of a wrecked trawler in the North Sea when it met its fate.
It was 1916, in the middle of World War I, and Germany had planted underwater mines all around their coast as well as those of the Dutch Wadden Islands. Even submarines had a tough time navigating around this threat.
In 2016 divers found the wreck of E5 off the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog. Her hatches were open, which suggests the crew tried to escape. The disappearance of its 29 sailors was finally solved.
5. M.P. Émelie in Baie-Saint-Paul, Canada: Captain Eloi Perron built what at first felt like the love of his life in 1956 and piloted it along the St. Lawrence River until 1975. It was eventually sold and resold several times until it was stranded 90km north of Quebec City.
There she lay for decades, rotting away until finally, in 2015, a fire accidentally set off by a thief trying to cut through the copper in the boat’s hull destroyed what was left of it, leaving only the frame. It pained Perron to see it whenever he visited Baie-Saint-Paul.
On February 15, 2018, Perron passed away from old age. A week later, his son was informed that the wreckage had completely disappeared! The ship left the world with its true owner.
6. Ghost fleet in Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia: Formerly Truk Lagoon, this area is littered with planes, ships, cars, tanks and bodies — victims of WWII. For two days in 1944, Allied bombers rained destruction on the beaches of the Caroline Islands in the South Pacific.
Often referred to as “Japan’s Pearl Harbor,” Operation Hailstone was so successful that the lagoon became a kind of cemetery. Approximately 250 Japanese aircrafts and over 50 ships were destroyed and sunken.
An estimated 400 Japanese soldiers were killed in one ship alone, trapped in the cargo hold. The fleet was largely forgotten until the late 1960s, when wreck divers brought attention to the site. Japan then made recovery efforts and removed many bodies for burial.
7. The SS Mohegan, Cornwall, England: The sinking of SS Mohegan is one of the biggest tragedies and mysteries of the Atlantic Transport Line ever to occur. The ship hit another, the Manacles, on her second voyage, on 14th October 1898.
Some people on board noticed the ship sailed too close to the coast and the Eddystone Lighthouse was too far away. When the ship struck Vase Rocks, the engine room immediately flooded and the steam gauges broke. Everyone ran onto the deck.
The crew managed to prepare two lifeboats, one of which capsized. It took only 12 minutes for the sea to swallow the Mohegan. Lifeboat Charlotte launched right away but only managed to save 44 passengers — no officers or crew. The recovered bodies were buried in a mass grave in St. Keverne.
8. Empire Strength (Romania): An old, decrepit ship rests just off the coast in the Black Sea. One kayaker, with a GoPro strapped to his head, bravely explored it.
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On the side of the hull, there’s a small crack. You can’t fit a boat inside of it, but this experienced adventurer was no stranger to navigating tight confines.
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The ship wore a coat of thick rust, but this fearless explorer continued his journey into the opening. With sharp edges and hidden pieces lurking below, this was no task for the casual kayaker.
Furthermore, in an unstable structure like an old ship, you never know what might be ready to crumble. Anything he touched could nudge something out of place and bring down some wreckage…
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Using his hands instead of his paddle, the kayaker guided himself fully into the ship. The interior was dark, but luckily, light poured through cracks. The inside wasn’t in any better condition than the outside.
There was definitely an eerie vibe to the ship that time had worn down into looking like an evil villain’s vaulted lair. Girders ribbed the walls and ceiling, while enormous gears and pistons blocked certain pathways.
Comments on the kayaker’s original video relayed mixed feelings about his journey. One person posting, “I noticed the Harland & Wolff logo on the main engine. Possibly the whole ship was built by this British shipyard, the builders of the SS Titanic.”
Others compared the structure’s interior to other familiar settings in shipwreck films and video game franchises. However, most comments seemed upset that the guy sometimes had his feet hanging outside the kayak!
Perhaps more interesting than the interior of this dilapidated ship, however, was the history of the ship itself. It spent years navigating waters all around the world before it was finally abandoned…
The vessel actually served within the UK’s Ministry of War Transport as an Empire Ship; it was used for giving the country’s wartime fleet a little extra umph. These ships were usually either built or captured from enemies.
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Before and during World War II, the United Kingdom boasted the largest fleet of merchant ships, but the war claimed 4,000 of them. German U-boats and the Luftwaffe patrolled the water, looking to sink enemy vessels…
Built in 1942 in a shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the ship weighed 7,355 tons! And though you probably couldn’t tell from its current state, this ship actually survived the fighting of WWII.
Despite the glory of Empire Strength‘s appearance and apparent might, its role wasn’t the most glamorous: it transported frozen meat from Argentina in 1944 and 1945, making stops at ports in North Africa, Algiers, Cuba, and Australia.
Just 26 years after it was built, EmpireStrength—whose name at one point had been changed to MV E Evangelia—ran aground just 16 miles south of the largest port in the Black Sea. Unable to move, it was abandoned and left floating in its current spot.
At first, locals raided the ship for anything of value, but now the MV E Evangelia has been reduced to nothing more than a few good photos and exploratory opportunities…
Still, the ship in its current state serves as a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction. Some people even brave the waters and swim out to the wreck—though that seems like a good way to cut yourself on a ship fragment!
Apparently, there’s even a way to get onto the deck, but it involves navigating rusty pipes and climbing up a ladder to a dark, windowless shaft. That seems, uh… safe? Yikes!
Thanks to one courageous kayaker, who documented his exploration, we were all able to experience a journey through a piece of history. We’re thankful he didn’t just take a trip to a nearby sandbar!
Check out the video this adventurous man recorded first-hand while paddling into the unknown. You’ll be quite surprised to find all the history that’s still intact!
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