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Frat Trash : Think 'Animal House' circa 1920. Then add a little class. An archeological dig uncovers fine china, women's clothes--and lots of liquor bottles--at Cal's Zeta Psi.

September 30, 1996|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERKELEY — No tattered togas were found, but archeologists digging through a Prohibition-era fraternity trash pit here have uncovered some other unusual artifacts, including evidence of a "Bachelor Condiment Syndrome" and a possible hazing device known as "the Tub."

The men of UC Berkeley's oldest fraternity also were fond of delicate demitasse cups, bootlegged liquor and, occasionally, women's clothing.

Welcome to "Animal House," 1920s-style.

This esoteric chapter of college history was unearthed--literally--a year ago, when a bulldozer began making way for a new wing of Cal's law school, Boalt Hall.

Up popped some broken ceramics (since nicknamed "fratware") and out of a next-door research building sprang Laurie Wilkie, an assistant professor of anthropology, who saw the fragments from her office window.

After haggling with construction workers and university officials, she was granted 1 1/2 days to excavate the site. The haul: a laboratory full of old bottles, medicines, toothbrushes, bones and other relics from what one reporter called "the not-so-ancient Greeks."

"It's trash," Wilkie concedes, "but historic trash."

From it, she and her students have pieced together a sometimes amusing portrait of early 20th century fraternity life at Zeta Psi.

Consider, for example, the cache of 46 Del Monte catsup bottles. Maybe they were used for home-brewed beer, student Carolyn Luong says. But a more likely explanation is what she terms the Bachelor Condiment Syndrome.

"The food [at the frat house] was so terrible that they had to douse it with catsup to make it edible," she theorizes. That seems to be supported by a plethora of bones from cheap cuts of meat--and by assorted empty bottles of Pheno-Wafers, citrate of magnesium and other elixirs for an upset stomach.

The typical Zeta Psi guy might have washed away any lingering meal aftertaste with a swig of Listerine, Wilkie says, holding a bottle fragment stamped with the company's name. Then again, the mouthwash could have been used to camouflage gin breath.

Judging from the dozens of beer and booze bottles discovered--along with archival photos of fraternity brothers clutching steins and a keg in the hills above the campus--Prohibition failed to squelch the group's party life.

A Zeta Psi house manager from that era, John Thomas Beales, 90, says members purchased moonshine in nearby Emeryville--or prescription liquor in local pharmacies.

"Some of Berkeley's doctors didn't want [us] to risk getting contaminated products from the bootleggers . . . so they [wrote] prescriptions for a pint of 100-proof whiskey," he recalls.

*

Among the more mysterious finds from the excavation site were a hat pin and some beads. At first, Wilkie's team was baffled, because Zeta Psi had strict rules banning women on the property.

Then researchers combed through fraternity archives and ran across old photos of members wearing female clothing.

Beales insists there was "no cross-dressing in my day," but Wilkie says such outfits were probably worn during skits and parties.

Also retrieved from the frat-house garbage pit were teacups, fine china and demitasse glasses emblazoned with the Zeta Psi crest.

Here, at last, was a possible indication of a more refined side of Greek life. After all, Zeta Psi's early members typically came from well-to-do homes, Wilkie notes. And alumni include financial planner Dean Witter, who died in 1969.

Perhaps the brothers spent their evenings discussing literature and philosophy while sipping coffee from dainty demitasse cups.

"They were more genteel then," suggests Julian Zajfen, president of Zeta Psi's current Berkeley incarnation. "They had specific sets of teacups and china. We don't have any of that."

Then again, it isn't entirely clear how that elegant fratware was used.

"I wonder," Wilkie says, noting that the demitasse cups were "shot-glass-sized" and that all were found broken. Besides, it's hard to imagine serious intellectual debates going on in a frat house that also allowed--according to diary entries from Zeta Psi archives--boxing matches indoors.

The group's original wooden house, built in 1870 and abandoned in 1911, was in such sorry shape toward the end that guests were never taken upstairs and recruitment of new members was hampered, says Trushna Parekh, an archeology student who examined the house history for Wilkie's class.

Part of the destruction was attributable to a much-feared cast iron tub in the basement.

"Tubbing," says former member Beales, involved dragging a freshman downstairs, stripping off his clothes and briefly holding him underwater in the tub.

"It was a discipline imposed by upperclassmen," he says. "It happened to me once. I have no idea [why]."

Wilkie says rumors abound that substances other than water were in the tub. The Zeta Psi diary describes people "resisting tubbing to the extent of tearing doors off hinges and ripping stair railings from the walls," Parekh reports.

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