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Thank you to our members for your support of the Museum and for supporting the arts in our community.
by Rebecca Dobrinski, My Museum Members Magazine Editor
Over the summer, UAB students turned over a plot of land on the Sloss Furnaces property, hoping to dig up some insights into the everyday lives of the families who lived and worked for the company during the early 20th century. During that time, Sloss operated both the furnaces as well as a “company town.” Through the company town structure, Sloss ingratiated itself into every aspect of their employees’ lives, providing everything from housing and a grocery store to a doctor’s office.
The students focused on a small plot of land adjacent to the doctor’s office, a structure that still stands on the property today. A small, brick building, the doctor’s office remains a relic of Birmingham’s segregated past—separate entrances can still be seen facing the former path of First Avenue North (the building was constructed prior to the existing viaduct).
I became involved in this project thanks to course instructor, Jun Ebersole, Collections Manager at McWane Science Center. During the planning stages, Ebersole approached me to research and contribute to the final report and lecture to the students. My lecture, “Using Maps in Historical Research,” was given on the first day the students were brought to the site. Prior to the walk-through, I discussed how you can use different maps to determine not only what was there, but who owned the property and how the property evolved over time. The maps helped the students determine where to dig and put their findings in contextto the site.
The students dug the site for three weeks, then returned to the McWane collections lab to process their findings. They learned to clean, reassemble, and catalog artifacts—which included photography, accession procedures, and the importance of tracking detailed information.
Towards the end of the lab portion of the course, Jun and I asked BMA Curator Graham Boettcher to visit the students and examine some of their findings: “It was a pleasure to spend the day with a group of individuals who share my passion for historical investigation. In helping to identify some of the fragments and shards the students uncovered, including old soft drink bottles and transfer-decorated ceramics, I was reminded of a book on the archaeology of early American life entitled In Small Things Forgotten, in which author James Deetz reminds us how even the tiniest bits of detritus can yield tremendous information about the day-to-day life of a past community. These inquisitive minds are using the ‘small things forgotten’ to help tell the story of life in Sloss quarters, an important but under-investigatedaspect of Birmingham’s industrial history.”
This project is one of many ways the BMA and UAB both formally and informally collaborate on a wide variety of projects in different disciplines.
Rebecca Dobrinski joined the BMA’s development department in 2011 and is also the My Museum Members Magazine / Publications Editor. She is a freelance contributor to local publications Magic City Post and Weld, and the Canadian hockey web site, The Hockey Writers. She guest-lectures on topics and will be contributing to an archaeological report on former company housing sites at Sloss Furnaces based on this course.
What Students Had to Say about the Course
Here are some thoughts from the students who participated in the UAB urban archaeology course at Sloss Furnaces:
“As a History Major and student of history this is exactly what I wanted to do. I have learned valuable skill in excavation and curation so that later generations will be able to see how others in the past lived. What is so exciting for me is the fact that just looking at certain things, such as the artifacts we have found or pictures I dug up in the archives, I am able to picture somewhat how lives were lived… Another thing that is amazing is finding that just by small fragments of objects there are people who can simply look at it and know what it is… I love how I finally got to see how different schools of thought can come together to work together and so much information can come out of it.”
Richard M. Crabb Jr.
“I really enjoyed having the opportunity to tour with Graham at the Birmingham Art Museum. This tour helped our Historical Archaeology class learn more about the artifacts we found at Sloss site by learning more about ceramics and bottles from the time period we were digging: the early 20th Century. There are distinctive characteristics to which we were made aware and this interdisciplinary approach by marrying Art History and Archaeology helped us understand the lives of the people who lived at this site. It also made me understand that the artifacts have much more information than I ever knew.”
Jeremiah S. Rastegar
“It is easy to associate museums and art history with only the most grand and aesthetically pleasing products of human enterprises, but I found informative and helpful to discuss the everyday artifacts being recovered from Sloss, and art depicting daily life at Sloss during our trip to the Birmingham Museum of Art. Rebecca Dobrinski was incredibly helpful at the actual dig site by providing us the Sanborn maps we used to guide the placements of our units, and gave valuable advice for how to research historical sites in the future. Speaking with Graham Boettcher about maker’s marks and certain traits associated with periods of ceramic and glass production while looking at fragments of artifacts was incredibly helpful in figuring out more about the site’s formation and the people who once lived there. Overall, it was a wonderful experience.”
Jade V. Delisle
“Being able to study various artifacts alongside Dr. Boettcher was truly inspirational. His keen eye and ability to identify various ceramic and glass pieces into their original form from the just smallest of clues embodies what, in my mind, a true expert should be able to achieve. I was awed by his skill and passion and hope to one day be able to say I have achieved a similar level of professional expertise.”
Catrina E. Callahan