UAB students unearth clues to tell Birmingham’s blue-collar story

Anthropology students are the first to excavate company housing at historic industrial site Sloss Furnaces.

Discarded chicken bones, broken glass and rusty nails can tell a story. In the right hands, they can become clues to the kind of people who used them and for what purpose.

For the past three weeks, University of Alabama at Birmingham anthropology students hunted clues at Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces, searching among layers of soil in hopes of discovering what life was like for workers who lived in segregated company housing during the turn of the century.

“It’s exciting,” says Richard Crabb, a 26-year-old former Marine whose childhood dreams of being Indiana Jones led to a double major in history and anthropology.

“I find myself getting a little ahead of myself, but you have got to be careful not to break anything,” he says. “The most valuable thing I have learned is control and patience.”

Crabb and the other students are enrolled in a six-week archaeology field school offered through a partnership among UAB, Sloss and the McWane Science Center. For the first three weeks, they excavated grounds at the old Sloss site; during the next three weeks they will clean, catalog and research their artifacts in a laboratory at McWane.

This is the first time this area has been excavated.

“It’s a piece of history we don’t want to lose,” says Jun Ebersole, collections manager at McWane. “We want to preserve these stories.”

Their mission is to unearth evidence that the workers lived in shotgun houses, which were cheaply constructed duplex-style homes sitting on piers. The houses were constructed as early as 1882 and were torn down after the 1960s and 1970s.

Students used old fire insurance maps to help them plot their digging. They found the brick pier of a home plus artifacts such as animal bones that revealed the meats the workers ate, broken soda bottles — many from Birmingham-based soda companies – military dog tags and remnants from the homes’ construction.

On a recent Wednesday, the students were at the site dressed in straw hats and khakis. The sun was merciless, but they persisted. One group dug and sifted through dirt, another worked to draw a map of the area and a third sorted through their findings.

This training is unique, Ebersole says. Anthropology students usually are trained only to dig and excavate. This program takes them a step farther. Students examine their finding in a lab, learn the steps that follow field work and mirror real-life anthropologists who work in museums, etc.

For Crabb, this work is like being a part of telling history’s story.

“You can read about something, and then you can see it — be a part of the team that digs it up and validates that in the 1930s this class of people only ate pork because that’s what they could afford,” he says. “It’s like you are living it through a shadow, telling a story.”