Each plank will be freeze-dried so that the fragmentary hull can eventually be reassembled and put on display, said Nichole Doub, head conservator for the Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory.
The 32-foot section of the nameless vessel was found earlier this month as workers were excavating for the rebuilt World Trade Center's parking garage.
The archeologists who carefully began taking it apart said they were thrilled by the historic find.
"This is my first ship. I've been doing archeology in New York City for almost 30 years," said Diane Dallal, director of archeology for AKRF, an environmental, engineering and planning consulting firm that is working on the project.
The section of the ship lay bathed in water and shielded from the sun by a tarp strung up on poles. Doub said the timber has to be kept wet or it will warp.
Each plank was labeled so conservators will know its precise location in the wreckage. The members of the conservation team then picked up each plank, measured it and wrapped it in layers of moisture-preserving insulation. The process of dismantling the ship was expected to take two to four days.
Debris found under the timbers gets placed on a screen and hosed off. The water-screening process, which evokes images of prospectors panning for gold, is the best way to separate artifacts from the mud they were buried in, Dallal said. Items like coins and buttons could yield clues to the ship's past, she said.
Historians believe the ship had been junked by the time it was used around 1810 as landfill to extend the shores of lower Manhattan. The ship's exact age will be determined by lab analysis.
Warren Riess, a historian at the University of Maine whose specialty is 18th-century ships, said the buried fragment appeared to be the ship's bow. "It's probably something that was like a coastal schooner or brigantine or sloop," he said.
Riess said the ship likely sailed from New York to Boston or to Virginia or Barbados carrying goods such as flour, bricks or hay.
"A merchant ship, a jack of all trade - that's my first guess," he said. "It's the kind of ship that made New York, when you think about it."
The ship was found partially intact because the dirt it was buried in preserved it. Riess said the ship is an important find because no one would have bothered to save such a commonplace vessel 200 years ago. "Nobody wrote about it, nobody made drawings of it," he said.
The discovery of the ship's rotting timbers 20 feet below street level in a spot surrounded by office towers suggests Manhattan's long history as a hub of commerce.
"The Dutch set it up as a trading post and what is it today?" Riess said. "It's the world's biggest, greatest trading post, isn't it?"