Nfld. & Labrador

Teeth, dishes and more: the latest Water Street dig archeological discoveries

As the five-year project to dig up aging water and sewer infrastructure continues in downtown St. John's, the archeologist supervising the project has seen a few interesting items unearthed.

'I started to panic for a second,' says Blair Temple, worried the crew had found a body

Blair Temple holds up an egg cup, with mortar and glass fused to it, that would have been damaged in one of the great fires in St. John's in the 1800s. (Paula Gale/CBC)

As the five-year project to dig up aging water and sewer infrastructure continues in downtown St. John's, the archeologist supervising the project has seen a few interesting items unearthed.

The latest find: a collection of 79 human teeth.

"You find teeth and you initially think, 'Oh my God, I've got a burial,'" said Blair Temple, the archeologist hired to supervise the construction project on Water Street.

"On a construction site, a project like this, that is the last thing you want to find."

Temple works for private firm Gerald Penney Associates, which was contracted by the city under provincial requirements.

I watch every bucket of dirt and if something gets unearthed.- Blair Temple

Since construction work started last year, Temple has spent 12 hours a day looking at the dirt being unearthed, inspecting it for any odds and ends that might be of interest.

The discovery of a bunch of human teeth was indeed exceptional.

"Myself and a couple of crew members were down in the hole they had recently excavated … and I started to panic for a second," Temple said, recounting first seeing about seven or eight human teeth.

The copper finial remains submerged in water, to keep it from eroding, until it can be preserved. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

The first step was to determine whether or not it was a burial of a body, something Temple said he didn't think was the case once they realized how many more teeth were in a small wooded drainage section east of George Street.

"I was suspicious of a burial because we found seven or eight, I think, at first, and no other bone."

After some more digging, Temple and the crews were able to rule out a burial and continue work.

But exactly where the teeth came from is still a mystery.

'Urban archeology is very different'

Temple has been documenting all of the various items found during the overhaul of the city's sewer system, dating items back to the 1800s.

Discoveries include an intact glass bottle, fragments of pipes, and various bits of broken dinnerware.

"I watch every bucket of dirt and if something gets unearthed, be it a soil deposit with artifacts, or a stone feature, be it a sewer or a wall, I get down and I record it," said Temple.

In addition to the teeth, Temple said crews found a broken egg cup that would have come from a structure that would have burned in one of the great fires, likely the one dating back to 1846.

The top of a glass bottle, as well as some other dish fragments, have been discovered in the Water Street dig. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

"There's mortar and melted glass fused to it," Temple said, noting the cup is extensively burned.

"We've also got an artifact which, as it turned out, is the finial, a pointed end, from an umbrella, which is quite interesting — I'd never actually found anything like that before."

Temple is leaving that finial, made of copper, submerged in water until a conservator can look at it and preserve it.

Archeology downtown is "quite different" from other historical sites, Temple said, which presents unique challenges — as well as unique opportunities for discoveries.

A stone sewer runs down Adelaide Street, through Water Street, into Bishops Cove. Blair Temple says it may be a sewer documented as having been constructed in the 1860s on Adelaide Street. (Submitted by Blair Temple)

"Urban archeology is very different from Ferryland, Cupids, pretty much practically anywhere else in the province. The amount of development that's occurred in a city this size in the last number of centuries is tremendous," he said.

"In one respect it has caused a tremendous amount of disturbance of pre-existing archeological resources, but at the same time this development is itself an archeological resource, and it can get fairly complicated. It's not straightforward, doing urban archeology."

Temple will continue to catalogue items while the dig continues. Artifacts discovered in the dig will be shipped to The Rooms once they're catalogued and a report is written.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show

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