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Archaeological Dig at Australian Metro Station Unearths 1,000 Human Teeth

A local dentist probably flushed the molars down the toilet or discarded them with his trash

Archaeologists unearthed the rotting teeth during construction of a new metro line in Melbourne, Australia (9News/Metro Tunnel Project)
smithsonian.com

Australian dentist J.J. Forster, who practiced in Melbourne between 1898 and the 1930s, attracted patients with his promise of teeth removal “truthfully without pain.” But the roughly 1,000 rotting molars unearthed during the construction of a metro line near Swanston Street, one-time home of Forster’s practice, tell a different story.

Sean Davidson of 9News reports that Forster and other local dentists likely pulled the teeth rather than attempting to repair them. Samples found at the sites of two new metro stations, Town Hall and State Library, reveal clear signs of cavity decay and root exposure, suggesting patients arrived at the dentist’s office in hopes of alleviating their chronic pain.

Unfortunately for those sufferers, remedies often proved just as painful as the initial ailments, Melbourne University endodontist Mark Evans tells The Age’s Carolyn Webb. Although those seeking root canal treatment or teeth removal were given anesthetics containing cocaine, novocaine or nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas), these drugs were far less effective than modern-day ones. As dentists poked around patients’ mouths with levers and forceps, both parties must have fervently hoped the anesthetic wasn’t on the verge of wearing off.

Those visiting the office for a filling were left in an even worse state, as dentists often failed to provide anesthesia for such simple procedures. “It would have been horrible,” Evans says, noting that dentists used a vibrating, pedal-driven drill in order to hollow out the offending tooth.

In addition to pulling teeth with all the aplomb of a bull in a china shop, Forster and colleagues probably spared little consideration for the fate of these removed teeth, which were found scattered across the dentist’s property and stuffed into an iron plumbing pipe.

“We think he wasn't that good at discarding teeth in a hygienic fashion,” excavation director Megan Goulding tells 9News’ Davidson. “He probably flushed them down toilets or the basin.”

According to a press release, the excavation that unearthed Forster’s sordid collection of molars is part of an $11 billion metro construction project. Five new underground stations are set to open in 2025, but in the meantime, archaeologists are conducting two six-month digs in Melbourne’s central business district, which has undergone rapid growth since its founding in 1837.

Forster’s practice, located at 11 Swanston Street, stood alongside historic buildings such as an early school for girls, a hotel and a hardware store.

Gambling-related items, including 20 cattle bone or ivory dice, were discovered at the site of the former hotel, Davidson reports. The finds also included a pair of earrings modeled on Queen Victoria’s mourning attire.

The array of artifacts—currently numbering roughly half a million and anticipated to reach up to two million—unearthed by the digs reveal an intimate portrait of 19th-century domestic life. New finds are continually posted on the Metro Tunnel Project’s website, allowing locals and interested out-of-towners to immerse themselves in the city’s history. A stone lion figurine, believed to have sat on the lid of a teapot brought from China during the height of the Gold Rush, speaks to Melbourne’s international links, while a James Dickson & Co. ginger ale bottle represents ventures launched closer to home.

Locals passing by the archaeological sites are free to observe researchers in action via special viewing windows. Come September 24, The Age’s Webb notes, a selection of artifacts from both excavations will be placed on display at the local visitor center.

“It’s quite evocative,’’ Goulding tells Webb. ‘‘Every aspect of our European past is here on the site and you can still see it.’’

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