Teeth With Cavities

Project details

  • Object number – Various
  • Material – Bone
  • Place of Origin – England
  • Date – Early 17th Century
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Study Collection
  • Category – Health & Hygiene

These molars found at the James Fort site reflect advanced periodontal disease. They appear to have fallen out, as there are no marks on the teeth from extraction. Listed among the first settlers are two surgeons who probably would have done the tooth pulling in the colony — and done it without using painkillers!

Surgeons William Wilkinson and Thomas Wotton came to Jamestown with barber Thomas Couper on the first three ships, in May 1607. The surgeon Post Ginnat arrived in January 1608, and surgeon Anthony Bagnall also was at James Fort in its first year. Physicians, barber-surgeons, and apothecaries performed different jobs in 1607. During the early Middle Ages, most medical and surgical healing was done by members of the clergy. When concern grew about the shedding of blood by priests, a papal decree and a 1215 church council banned priests from doing surgery. Surgery passed to barbers for their experience with razors, and times of war further spread the surgeon’s skill across many battlefields. In London, trade guilds for barbers and surgeons began in the 14th century, and they were formally united in 1540 by King Henry VIII as the Company of Barber-Surgeons. Because they cut into the body, barber-surgeons were seen as craftsmen — below the social rank of physicians who got university training in philosophy, theology, the arts, and the sciences. Surgery was sometimes done by illiterates.