Digging up pieces of history on our construction sites

On both coasts, 2016 was a year of big discoveries for Skanska USA, including digging up a mastodon and uncovering a shipwreck. The finds gave us two very different pictures of what life in these areas must have been like at different points in history: mastodons roamed the earth more than 10,000 years ago, and the 19th century ship is believed to have been delivering barrels of lime to merchants. We also had the pleasure of assisting our client, The Burke Museum, in safely moving their own dinosaur discovery in Montana.

Unearthing the mastodon in Los Angeles, examining the shipwreck in Boston and transporting the T. rex in Seattle.

Los Angeles

In November 2016, Station Engineer Chris Booze and General Superintendent Peter Daboul were excavating at the future Wilshire/LaBrea Station of the Purple Line Extension in Los Angeles. Up until this particular day, the most exciting relics they’d uncovered on jobsites included small parts of old railroad crossings, bottles and other debris. To work near La Brea Tar Pits, one of the world’s most famous fossil sites, they trained in preparation for the possibility of uncovering prehistoric fossils or remnants.

The tools being used on site as well as the small fossils and rocks collected for further examination.

“Everyone working within two miles of La Brea Tar Pits is required to participate in a paleontology class before beginning work. However, building a subway through Los Angeles is no small feat and we all were completely absorbed in digging out dirt at the station so the discovery came as a huge surprise that day,” explained Booze.

“As we dug deeper into the ground, onsite paleontologists were thrilled when they noticed part of a tusk being uncovered in the dirt and we moved quickly to partition off the area for the paleontologists to come in with their brushes and microscopes while we kept working around them. A few days after the tusk discovery, a skull was also found and that’s when it really became big news,” said Daboul.

A paleontologist examines the mastodon in a secured area surrounding the discovery site.

Ultimately, the teeth of an adult mastodon and a three-foot tusk fragment were found, as well as parts of the skull and tusks of a younger mastodon that may turn out to be a mammoth. “These mammoth and mastodon remains found during construction on the new Purple Line stops are by far the coolest things I’ve discovered in my career. With the project close to the famed La Brea Tar Pits, it was more of a ‘when’ than ‘if’,” said Booze.

“Finding the fossils was awesome and memorable, but we were anxious to get them safely removed so we could resume our work.  This is a unique and challenging job, given the potential for fossil discoveries, the gassy underground conditions, and the dynamic, high density urban environment. We all have a real sense of pride and accomplishment at what we are doing for the city and the residents of Los Angeles,” said Daboul.

The fossils will be delivered to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The findings are currently being examined in a paleontological lab and will be delivered to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County upon completion. Mastodons used to roam present-day California, but went extinct around 10,000 years ago.

Boston

In May 2016, Field Engineer Ripley Swan was working a normal day at 121 Seaport, Skanska’s 17-story, 400,000-square-foot Class-A office development currently under construction in Boston’s Seaport District. The team was wrapping up the first phase of the site excavation with a PC-800 hydraulic excavator pulling dirt out of the ground into trucks to be disposed of when something caught his attention.

“I noticed some wood so a smaller machine was called in to help dig around it. Digging revealed a structure that required us to use even smaller equipment to proceed until we realized we had found something that looked like the outline of a boat. Right away, we brought in an archaeologist from the City of Boston,” said Swan.

Our team carefully resumed work around the object, which eventually revealed the remains of a 50-foot wooden ship.

The 121 Seaport ship was wooden, about 50 feet long, and built sometime between the late 18th and mid-19th century.

“I felt kind of amazed. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Shawn Hurley, president and CEO overseeing Skanska’s real estate development operations in the U.S., said to the New York Times. “What do we need to do here? What are the next steps?”

“Everyone was excited. The Boston office just moved next door so we had a steady stream of people checking the site out through the window. As news continued to spread, helicopters started flying over us. It ended with Skanska hosting a press conference right in front of the excavation. All of the local news reporters were in attendance and it was awesome to see that what we did made major news,” said Swan.

City of Boston Archeologist Joe Bagley, Skanska USA Commercial Development President & CEO Shawn Hurley and Field Engineer Ripley Swan on the 121 Seaport site of the shipwreck discovery.

To excavate as much of the ship remains as possible, work in the area was stopped to allow a full investigation by the City of Boston archaeologist. Our teams have the highest consideration and care for the communities where we work and try to take care of anything found that could have historical significance.

As the owner of the development site, we convened a team of archaeologists including the Public Archaeology Laboratory, City of Boston archaeologist, nautical archaeologists, and archaeologists with the State of Massachusetts convened at the site to document the shipwreck.

Most of the wood uncovered is charred, suggesting that the ship burned because when lime gets wet it reacts to produce heat, which can cause fires.

Some cool facts about the shipwreck include:

The 121 Seaport ship was wooden, about 50 feet long, and built sometime between the late 18th and mid-19th century. It had at least two masts.

It held a large cargo of wooden barrels that contained lime, possibly from the Rockland area of Maine. The team found several dozen barrels of lime, suggesting the entire bottom of the ship was covered with lime barrels.

The ship contained two knives, two forks and a stack of burned plates in the rear of the ship.

The ship sunk sometime between 1850 and 1880. The ship itself is likely older than the date it went down. It could have been made in the late 1700s or early 1800s.

Most of the wood is charred, suggesting that the ship burned because when lime gets wet it reacts to produce heat, which can cause fires. The team was unable to determine if the 121 Seaport ship burned causing it to sink, if it was deliberately scuttled in the low-lying mudflats when the fire started, or if it ran aground and then burned.

The team found a fork at the shipwreck site. Additionally, we identified two knives and a stack of burned plates.ar.

Read more about the 121 Seaport Shipwreck here.

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