"What makes the tree-ring patterns in a certain region look very similar, in general, is climate," said the leader of the new study, Dario Martin-Benito, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. Regional ring patterns arise from local rain levels and temperatures, with wetter periods producing thicker rings and drier periods producing smaller rings, he said.
Martin-Benito and his colleagues at Columbia's Tree Ring Lab narrowed their search to trees in the eastern United States, thanks to the keel of the ship, which contained hickory, a tree found only in eastern North America and eastern Asia. Otherwise, the researchers would have had much more difficulty in limiting their search, as oak is found all over the world. [Shipwrecks Gallery: Secrets of the Deep]
The ship's signature pattern most closely matched with the rings found in old living trees and historic wood samples from the Philadelphia area, including a sample taken during an earlier study from Independence Hall, which was built between 1732 and 1756.
"We could see that at that time in Philadelphia, there were still a lot of old-growth forests, and [they were] being logged for shipbuilding and building Independence Hall," Martin-Benito told Live Science. "Philadelphia was one of the most — if not 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."
Historians still aren't certain whether the ship sank accidently or if it was purposely submerged to become part of a landfill used to bulk up Lower Manhattan's coastline. Oysters found fixed to the ship's hull suggest it at least languished in the water for some time before being buried by layers of trash and dirt.
Previous investigations found that the vessel's timbers had been damaged by burrowing holes of Lyrodus pedicellatus, a type of "shipworm" typically found in high-salinity, warm waters — a sign that the ship, at some point in its life, made a trip to the Caribbean, perhaps on a trading voyage. Martin-Benito speculated that the infestation might have been one of the reasons the ship met its demise just 20 or 30 years after it was built.
"I don't know much about the life expectancy for boats, but that doesn't seem like too long for something that would take so long to build," Martin-Benito said.
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