1,000 Human Teeth Uncovered in Excavation for Australian Subway

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Workers excavating a subway line in Melbourne, Australia, recently uncovered a gruesome surprise — more than 1,000 human teeth, many of them riddled with enormous cavities.

There was no suspicion of foul play; the teeth had been discarded by a dentist — a man named J.J. Forster who practiced at the turn of the 20th century — and several other nearby dentists on the same block, after the teeth were yanked from the gums of their owners, according to Melbourne news site The Age.

Forster worked as a dentist at 11 Swanston Street in the Australian state of Victoria from 1898 until the 1930s, and the site of his former practice is currently part of an archaeological dig by the Victoria government. Now halfway to completion, the six-month project is being conducted in preparation for building two new Metro Tunnel stations, the Australian Broadcasting Company reported. [Chew on This: 8 Foods for Healthy Teeth]

Enormous, gaping holes in many of the recovered teeth suggest that their former owners endured years of agonizing pain before the teeth were finally extracted, The Age reported.

Representatives of the Metro Tunnel first shared photos of the finds on Aug. 17 in a tweet; the images included half a set of dentures, a tooth with a gold filling and a handful of assorted molars and incisors. At the time of the photo, workers had unearthed 200 teeth. They were found inside an iron pipe and scattered in sediment nearby. The teeth were "probably flushed down a drain," according to the tweet.

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By Aug. 22, archaeologists had identified more than 1,000 teeth, according to a Metro Tunnel tweet. Video clips showed conservators cleaning the objects' stained enamel, likely with more care and attention than the teeth received in life.

Tooth and consequences

"Perfect Teeth Make a Perfect Smile," read one of Forster's newspaper ads from Feb. 5, 1924; the document is digitally preserved by Victoria's Public Record Office. The ad further promised that his practice was capable of "removing teeth truthfully without pain," but the reality of an extraction under Forster's care — particularly during his practice's earliest years — was likely quite different, Mark Evans, an associate professor with the Melbourne Dental School at the University of Melbourne, told The Age.

At the dawn of the 20th century, dentists pulled teeth with forceps and levers, using cocaine, nitrous oxide or novocaine to numb the pain, and these were far less effective than today's anesthetics, Evans said. Fillings were often performed without any anesthesia whatsoever, with the patient feeling every excruciating vibration as the dentist manually ground a cavity with a pedal-driven drill, Evans said.

Alongside Forster's dental detritus, archaeologists dug up about half a million artifacts, including a child's slingshot, a jet earring modeled after the mourning jewelry worn by Queen Victoria and a glass pipe used for smoking opium, The Age reported.

Though early 20th-century tooth extraction was inarguably horrific, there was a very small silver lining to it. Dental work was typically executed in the home of the patient or dentist, so there was a far lower risk of infection than there was for procedures performed in operating theaters, which were far more likely to be brimming with dangerous microbes, according to the New York Academy of Medicine.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.