Digging Up The U.S.

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“Ripping stuff off from coastal waters is apparently considered part of the American ethic.”

By early afternoon Murphy finally has everything under control, and as we traverse the bay along parallel lanes one hundred feet apart, the first anomalies begin to show up on the graphic recorders. One of these is from the wreck of the Pomo , a steamer that ran aground in 1913 and whose engine block is still visible at low tide. Then, just before two o’clock, both the magnetometer and the side-scan sonar register simultaneous deviations. “We got a mag hit,” Murphy shouts exultantly, poking his bearded face out of the galley to see where we are. The readout on the sonar graph, which looks like one of those video pictures of a lunar landscape, shows an eighty-foot-long structure lying at the bottom of the bay about a quarter-mile offshore.

That evening, back at the motel where the Park Service team is staying, Murphy spreads all his graphs and charts out on a bed and shows his partners what he found. Lenihan, a thirty-eight-year-old native New Yorker with an air of obsession about him, and Carrell, one of the few women underwater archaeologists in the country, had both spent the day on another boat, in a different part of the bay, diving for wrecks that had appeared on an earlier scan. The seas had been rough, the underwater visibility poor, but Lenihan had managed to locate what, by all accounts, was the wreck of the Hartwood . A Xerox copy of the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle from June 29, 1929, ( SF SHIP RAMS REEF; 16 MEN RESCUED ) lies on the bed next to a half-eaten sandwich. “We got caught in a back-surge,” Lenihan says matter-of-factly. “Damn near got the guts kicked out of us. But we found the engine and the shafting—all in excellent shape.”

The next day I go out with Lenihan and Carrell, who are planning to dive for two more wrecks off the treacherous point. A thick fog hovers over the bay as the two archaeologists change into their neoprene diving suits and stow their gear in the boat. They are joined by two local divers, James Delgado and Dave Buller, both shipwreck buffs who have been helping out on the project. Delgado, a park ranger in San Francisco, is an amateur expert on the history of West Coast shipping. “There’s more to this than just finding wrecks,” he says as we head out to sea. “A ship is a microcosm, a slice of life from a particular period. The whole history of the region, the development of its maritime economy, is written out there on the ocean floor.”

Shortly after noon, as the sun begins to break through the cloud cover, we arrive at the site where the Munleon , a twenty-six-hundred-ton freighter is believed to have sunk in 1931. Six-foot swells heave the diving boat like a bathtub toy before spending themselves on the rocky shore. Delgado and Carrell are the first to go. With their Mylar pads—on which they can take notes underwater—and their tape measures, they disappear beneath the waves. Twenty-five minutes later their heads bob to the surface. “What a beautiful sight,” Carrell gasps, hauling herself back into the boat. “It’s all there—the engine, the boilers, the connecting rods still attached—just where it’s supposed to be.”

For the next two hours the four divers take turns exploring the wreck. Empty Clorox bottles are tied to the two boilers to mark the site. Everything is carefully measured, then photographed with underwater cameras. But the work of excavating the site, of searching for artifacts amidst the wreckage, will have to wait another day. There are a dozen other wrecks to find before this phase of the survey is completed, many of them of more historical significance than the Munleon . And the San Augustin , the real prize of the lot, the oldest known shipwreck on the West Coast, has thus far managed to elude them.

A FEW DAYS AFTER returning to dry land, I visited James Deetz in his office on the Berkeley campus. An energetic, almost charismatic figure in the field of historical archaeology, Deetz is fifty-three, the father of nine children, and a teacher of considerable renown. Behind his cheerful, folksy demeanor, however, gloomy thoughts were lurking. “I think we’re in great danger of losing our center,” he says in a smoky voice, fingering his turquoise-studded belt. “Things are falling apart.”

What has been bothering Deetz of late is the pseudoscientific character of much of the work being passed off as historical archaeology these days. “There are whole areas of American cultural history which can be dealt with better through the documents than by digging holes,” he explains. “I get very nervous when I read research designs which claim, for example, that they’re going to be dealing with the economic structure and commodity exchange of a nineteenth-century city. And this translates into the inevitable five-by-five pits, where you get some potsherds and this and that and the other which might hint at some of these processes. But, Jesus, you can get them a lot better through commercial records and shipping records and things like that.”