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‘Whoever owned the teeth, they were in a lot of pain’: archeologist
Here’s something for you to chew on the next time you’re walking down Water Street: imagine what’s buried beneath your feet.
Likely the last thing archeologist Blair Temple expected to pull from the pebbles was a cache of 79 human teeth, but there they were: little yellowish-white dots amidst the upturned rocks.
Excavation for water and sewer upgrades on Water Street have uncovered fascinating parts of St. John’s history since the work began last year, but even a seasoned archeologist like Temple said he got “a bit of a start” that afternoon when the teeth were found in one concentrated area underneath the ground near 284 Water St.
It happened on May 1 at the Beck’s Cove-George Street and Water Street intersection by Sin City Clothing and Nonia.
The find was kept a secret since then so crews could clew up the excavation and installation of infrastructure without interference from people curious to see where the teeth were found.
“First when I saw the human teeth, I started to panic because your first inclination is a burial, and nobody wants to find a burial,” said Temple, who works with archeological consultants Gerald Penney Associates. He’s keeping an eye on the construction to collect and study any artifacts — digging in the downtown core requires the presence of an archeologist.
Temple said no other human bones were found. That means the teeth weren’t considered human remains in the sense that police would have to be called in.
“Once we got into that kind of quantity – I mean, two (teeth), OK, but 79 – no, you’re not dealing with burials, you’re dealing with something else.”
He said the teeth were found in a wooden drain and sewer system likely dated around the mid-1800s, but until he has an opportunity to study the artifacts found within, that date is an educated guess.
If correct, it predates the practice of dentistry in the province as we know it today – at that time in the province, dentistry was practiced by doctors, apothecaries, barbers and even jewelers.
“There was no dentist as such in St. John’s until fairly late in the 19th century,” said Temple.
“So, I think that’s what it is, is basically there was an operation there – a barber, or a pharmacist, or something like that. … It’s basically stuff that this individual had pulled, and then just flushed down into their drain.
“I think what happened was there’s a drain leading from the former structure and it brought up in another drain on Water Street that was probably choked up with silt, and that was where it all stopped because everything was found in this very small concentrated area.”
Gerald Penney Associates owner and archeologist Gerald Penney had a dentist look at the teeth to confirm they are human, and that they came from different people.
“A lot of them had really bad cavities,” said Temple.
“Whoever owned the teeth, they were in a lot of pain.”
Penney said many teeth also had “a terrific amount of tobacco staining.”
Rooting out the source
Historian Bob Cuff has some theories about who might be responsible for the cache of teeth.
In most recent history, Cuff found two dental offices that were located at 284 Water St. between 1946 and 1961 – Dr. G.J. Eagan and Dr. J.C. Sparkes. However, he said the archeologists believe the teeth appear too old to have been pulled by those dentists.
Further back in history, the building immediately west of 284 Water St. housed apothecary Felix Dowsley. He pulled teeth during the years between the Great Fires of 1819 and 1846. He is perhaps best known in Newfoundland history for dying of starvation on Gull Island after the wreck of the Queen of Swansea in 1867.
At 282 Water St. between 1870 and 1890 there was a jeweler named Charles W. Lindberg who made false teeth, and possibly pulled teeth.
Another possibility is Peter Brennan, a merchant, ship owner and politician who had a business in Beck’s Cove.
“He was called ‘Brennan the bonesetter’ because he would use block and tackle to set broken bones and stuff, and it seems very likely that he also drew teeth,” said Cuff.
“All of these people were within what I would call a rock-throwing distance of where the teeth were found.”
Farther down Water Street, near Scanlan’s Lane, was a less likely source of the teeth: Dr. J.J. Dearin, an apothecary and member of the House of Assembly who, according to the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, advertised that he performed “all operations in dentistry.” Dearin is generally regarded as the province’s first dentist. He died in 1890.
“So, it’s easy enough to document that there were people in that area who might have pulled teeth,” concluded Cuff.
“We didn’t come up with anything that was a definitive answer. What we came up with was really a bunch of possible explanations.”
Temple said his goal is to get a more specific date for the drain in which the teeth were found by studying any artifacts that were also found inside. That way, he might also be able to date the teeth.
“I’d like to fine-tune it a little bit and get a more specific answer. And you might never know exactly. In fact, you probably won’t.”
Meanwhile, the teeth are being held at Memorial University until further study can be done on them, likely by a physical anthropologist. That information will be included in a report the team has been compiling since they began looking underneath downtown St. John’s in 2004 with the harbour interceptor project. Once the water and sewer upgrades are finished in three years’ time, they hope to publish what they’ve learned.
Photos of the yellowed teeth were shown to The Telegram, but they were not permitted to be included in this article.
Evolution of Water Street
Other than finding strange items like a bunch of teeth, Temple said the water and sewer upgrades give him a chance to study how Water Street has changed over the last 200 years.
He called the work “an excellent case study of urban growth.”
Temple has compared maps from 1751 and 1807 with modern maps and said the St. John’s we see today is “barely recognizable.”
Based on what he’s seen so far, he believes it was either the 1819 or 1833 fire that resulted in extensive roadwork on Water Street, essentially altering the width and route of the street.
“The post-fire rebuilding process is the single most important and impactful event that has happened to Water Street in terms of its transformation over time. Nothing has had the impact like the fires.”
Temple said the water and sewer infrastructure being installed is expected to last decades, so this excavation over the course of the five-year project is likely his last opportunity to get such an extensive look underneath the historic street.
“Except for small things here and there possibly, I’ll never get to look under Water Street to this extent ever again – not in my lifetime.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity because there’s always something that you stumble upon that you didn’t know before, and it really, really helps expand our knowledge of how the city, and how the downtown, kind of evolved from a little tiny town into the city that we see now.”
Other than the teeth, Temple also found remnants of fish flakes underneath Beck’s Cove that are likely evidence of the early 17th- or 18th-century fisheries.
The most frequent material he found this year, however, is associated with either the 1819 or 1833 fire. At the Beck’s Cove intersection, he found burnt ceramics and burnt bottle glass that he believes is related to the 1779 fire.
The second phase of the Water Street infrastructure project between Bishop’s Cove and Ayre’s Cove began on April 1 and is scheduled to be finished by June 29.
Next year, the third phase will cover the stretch of Water Street between Ayre’s Cove and Clift’s-Baird’s Cove.