Historical Archaeology of the Shipwreck Rome

Michael Overfield
Simone San Miguel
Jeff Whittington

The modern day waterfront and finacial district of San Francisco are built on a man-made land mass that was once Yerba Buena Cove. Owing to a shortage of usable land to the west, the city extended its streets into the water of the cove, eventually corralling it with cross-connecting piers between the wharves to create "blocks" of water; these were then filled with sand, rubble, and the debris of the rapidly growing city. These "blocks" often contained the hulks of old ships which had been used as commercial "buildings," as well as ones scuttled simply for the sake of establishing property rights. In 1867 a seawall was established along the city front to reduce erosion, and stabilize the fill material. Between 1867 and 1868, heavy shoaling along commercial piers required more dredging and the construction of a new wall some 200 feet east of the old city front. In 1910, the final section of the wall was completed, and the area between the old seawall and the new seawall is known as modern day Embarcadero.

Excavation for the expansion of the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) began in the fall of 1993, to connect Embarcadero Station to Sixth Street. A crew digging a tunnel 35 feet below the streets of San Francisco discovered a cast iron anchor in December of 1994, which halted construction while an Enviromental Impact report was drawn up as mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The anchor proved to be from Gold Rush-era ship Rome, known to have been intentionally sunk in 1851; a major excavation ensued. A variety of material was recovered in association with the ship, most of which was probably fill from the city's dumps deposited during the decade or so after the Rome was scuttled. This included whole and fragmented ceramics, jars, bottles, leather goods, wood fragments, animal bones, and brick rubble, all lying beneath the 1906 stratum of burned rubble.

Among the artifacts recovered were hundreds of pieces of footware, of which 35 of the most complete were analyzed in detail. The child's boot shown here, probably dates between 1843 and 1866. This boot was constructed with two parallel rows of daimond shaped wooden pegs, and were made on straight lasts. In the mid-1800s, most shoes were made on straight lasts (shoe forms). The use of this type of form resulted in identically shaped right and left shoes. By the mid-1860s, crooked lasts, designed to differentiate between left and right shoes, came into common use. Unfortunately, the transition from straight to crooked lasts was so gradual that the change is not useful as a time marker for dating shoes (Anderson 1968:59; Huddleson and Watanabe 1990:99). In the 19th century, shoe soles and uppers were fastened together with numerous small wooden pegs. These were well suited for shoe construction as both leather and wood expand in damp conditions and contract in dry conditions, although at slightly different rates (Saguto 1984:6).

The shoes and boots recovered from the excavation mirror the changing nature of San Francisco's population of the 1850s and 1860s which required heavy-duty shoes and rugged boots. As San Francisco evolved from a frontier outpost to a cosmopolitan city, the needs of its inhabitants changed. Shoes in the late 1800s and early 1900s became more fashionable and diverse as families with women and children moved to San Francisco.

Several earthenware jars bearing a resemblance to ancient Greek and Roman amphora also were found associated with the Rome.These botijas were coarse, undecorated, hand-coiled earthenware vessels, generally glazed only at the neck and mouth, and often bearing a slip of some sort on the body. Botijas were in general manufacture between 1780 and 1850 and were used to transport and store a variety of liquids and other goods.

Since much of the material for filling in "water lots" came from the city's dumps, it is difficult to say whether there is any direct association between these botija jars and the ship itself. Due to the nature of the excavation, little provenience or associational data exists on cultural materials found in and around the vessel. Many of the items were recovered from a mud matrix at the projectís muck bin, while others were arbitrarily salvaged by non-archaeologists. Although the sole artifact with contextual data was, in fact, a botija recovered from the surface of the deck directly behind the foremast, the archaeological firm reporting on the excavation (William Self Associates) concluded that it was likely to have been fill material. It should be noted, however, that no botijas were found in areas other than that of the Rome excavation itself and that several of these vessels were recovered complete and intact (remaining so through the excavation would appear to have been a feat in itself). Since their unglazed exterior promoted evaporation and kept the contents cool, these cheaply made jars would certainly have been a viable ceramic for crew provisioning.