Students unearth family histories in University of Evansville archaeology class
EVANSVILLE — If we relied on the written record, University of Evansville archaeology professor Alan Kaiser said parts of the past may be distorted or lost.
So Kaiser’s Field Methods in Archaeology students are working to include all sides of history of the families who lived at Tin City.
The 11-student class participates in an on-campus excavation every other year, digging an area of the old Tin City site to learn more about the women and children residents who lived there between 1947 and 1961.
“If we only had archaeological evidence, we’d think there were just women and children,” Kaiser said. “If we just did research in the archives and written record, we’d think there are just men.”
Kaiser said it’s good for students to put the two together because they learn a lot.
“My guess is that since the men were students and a lot of them were working, they just weren’t home very much,” he said. “So they were dropping their artifacts in other places. I think they just came home, ate, went to bed and then left.”
Veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill after World War II drastically increased UE’s enrollment, then known as Evansville College. To help with the student housing shortage, Evansville College officials used federal money to build 13 residential units on campus specifically for World War II, and later Korean War, veterans and their families.
The official name of the housing was College Court, but students referred to it as Tin City because the buildings had aluminum siding and roofs.
Students excavate to learn more about residents of Tin City through material things people used and then discarded. Artifacts shed light on women, children and men who lived there.
It was late in the season when Grace Vavra found a piece of concrete floor with identifying “battleship gray” paint. Vavra, 20, is a junior archaeology major from Iowa who came to UE for the archaeology program.
“All of my friends had already found things, and I was so jealous of everyone here,” she said. “Being able to find my own thing, oh my gosh, I almost peed my pants. It was very exciting.”
Some artifacts found over the years include a 1947 penny, part of a hard rubber pedal that may have belonged to a child’s tricycle, part of a white bow-shaped barrette, a white hoop earring, a broken piece of a letter bead, parts of costume jewelry and a blue-and-white marble.
A native of Zimbabwe, Rebecca Nelson also came to UE for the archaeology program. Nelson, 22, who is a senior double majoring in archaeology and biology, said it’s exciting to be hands-on and dig up the past.
“People think we (excavate) just to uncover amazing artifacts,” Nelson said. “But we’re using them to gain information about past civilizations.”
Kaiser said the jewelry and a fancy-looking button most likely from women’s clothing could be a sign of the women “trying to make themselves look pretty on a budget.”
“It was very much intended to look expensive,” he said of the Mother of Pearl imitation button. “They certainly are trying to be middle class or upper class even, but they just don’t have the money.”
Kaiser, UE archaeology professor, started the spring semester class in 2003 to provide a hands-on archaeology course. Initially, the project was meant to find out what life was like then and if anything was left behind.
The course continues to evolve, and includes historical elements, research at Willard Library, a soils unit, drawing maps, surveying land and interviews of the people who lived there.
Tin City housing wasn’t meant to be permanent, and in 1961, college officials demolished the buildings to make room for Moore Residence Hall, Krannert Hall of Fine Arts, Wheeler Concert Hall and Neu Chapel.
“There is so much about the past that we don’t know that can help us understand even our present,” Kaiser said. “This time period, just after World War II, you’d think we would know it all just from the written record. But I think we’re proving that we don’t.”