Laurie Wilkie‘s archaeological journey began with a dig, as you’d expect. But rather than occurring in some exotic spot, the dig that led to the just-published Lost Boys of Zeta Psi was just outside the windows of the university’s Archaeological Research Facility at 2251 College Avenue.

A construction crew was excavating for the foundations of the law school’s extension in 1995 and Wilkie looked out her window and saw a cache of bottles uncovered by the backhoe. Then the youngest member of the anthropology department and its resident historic archaeologist, Wilkie went to investigate.

In addition to the bottles, that first dig produced ceramics, jars, inkwells, animal bones, buttons, pipe pieces, beer steins, cans, and a variety of household trash dating back to 1923. The civilization that Wilkie was uncovering was Zeta Psi, the first fraternity established west of the Rockies, in 1870.

As Wilkie told Wendy Edelstein at UC Berkeley’s NewsCenter, her subsequent researches into Zeta Psi confounded modern notions of fraternity life.

“This is where a young man separated himself from his mother’s household and learned how to be elegant,” she said to Edelstein. “The old fraternities are elitist, protective of particular legacies, of race and sex and money. When we dismiss them as just a bunch of guys lying around drinking, then we’re letting that go unexamined.”

The literary analogy that Wilkie’s title makes clear is to the Lost Boys in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The Lost Boys lead a life of perpetual boyhood in Never Land, but decide to follow Wendy Darling back to London, where they grow up and become conventional bankers and middle managers. Wilkie’s “lost boys” of Zeta Psi became bankers, railroad tycoons, trustees of the University of California, and, in one instance, governor of California.

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...