Dining With the Brothers, 1870

Frat House Dig Yields Evidence of Formal Dinners, Liberally Washed Down With Spirits

by Jacqueline Frost

Many archeologists traipse to exotic, foreign locales to unearth clues of past civilizations, but several Berkeley archeologists have dug up some local history in their own back yard.

Found behind the archeology laboratory headquarters were artifacts from the garbage dump of a turn-of-the-century fraternity--and indications that the Greeks' penchant for beer has not changed much over the past 90 years.

Archeologists in early September dug up nearly 200 beer, whiskey, seltzer and wine bottles among the hundreds of dirt-encrusted artifacts found at the site where construction crews are building a new addition to the law school.

"There were not a whole lot of artifacts related to education," said Laurie Wilkie, assistant professor of archeology. "There were very few inkwells."

Wilkie estimates that the garbage was deposited sometime between 1870 and 1920.

The archeology laboratory--a red brick building behind Boalt Hall--was once home to Zeta Psi. Founded in 1870, it is Berkeley's oldest fraternity and the oldest west of the Mississippi River. A wooden house stood on the site before the brick building was built around 1912. The fraternity is now in a house on Bancroft Way.

Mark Hall, director of the archeology laboratory, surmised that in the days before citywide garbage collection, fraternity members tossed their refuse outside and buried it between the buildings.

He also conjectured that the fraternity members practiced some sort of rudimentary recycling program because they found very few animal bones among the mainly glass and metal artifacts. "This would indicate they dumped (organic) garbage somewhere else," he said.

Hall said that they discovered the site after bulldozers began digging a foundation for the new addition to the law school--directly behind the archeology laboratory.

"You could literally see the stuff falling out," said Hall, who can view the construction from the back of the lab. The university halted construction for two days in early September to allow a team of seven campus archeologists to excavate the site.

Hall said campus archeologists were familiar with the building's history and were not surprised by the find. "There are probably a number of sites at this end of campus," he added.

Archeology professors used the excavation as an opportunity for their students to gain field experience. "There was a regular parade of Introduction to Archeology classes to view the excavation," Hall said. "They don't usually get the chance to watch a real dig."

In addition to piles of beer bottles, the excavation unearthed a number of artifacts that will help archeologists and historians shed some light on fraternal life at the turn of the century.

For instance, they found tea cups, saucers, plates and even egg cups emblazoned with the fraternity crest. "This indicates that the fraternity members had sit-down formal dinners," said Wilkie. "A find like this gives you the chance to view a little thin slice of history."

Researchers hope to learn even more about the early Greeks when they clean the artifacts and began tracing their origins.

"There aren't a lot of tea drinkers here now, but we have coffee mugs with the fraternal crest," said senior Walter Grieves, a history major and president of the Zeta Psi fraternity.

"And as far as all of the beer bottles found, we think that imbibing in a few alcoholic beverages is an excellent way to get to know your friends. But we don't associate ourselves with the stereotype of Animal House," he said. And, Grieves said, the fraternity still holds formal dinners.

Many of the beer bottles bear a manufacturing mark, while some labels are still barely visible. "There were a number of Anheuser Busch bottles and whatever was the gold medal winner in 1915," said Hall.

Also found at the site was a cooking pot spotted with egg shell, a horseshoe from a very large draft horse, several light bulbs, a stove burner, women's hair pins and some medicine bottles. "It will be interesting to clean (the medicine bottles) to see what they thought ailed them," Hall said.

Archeologists also discovered a small piece pipe stem made of a type of fine clay that would date it to around 1870, said Hall.

Some of the artifacts will go on temporary display this spring in the main library. Others are headed for a permanent collection in the Hearst Museum, said Hall. The rest will be studied by students as part of the Student-Teaching Collection housed in the Department of Anthropology.


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