Discovering The Past Through Dental Fillings

Feb 28, 2014

Mandible and cranium remnants of human remains found in Deadwood having a panoramic x-ray taken.
Credit Courtesy Deadwood City Archives

As we move further into the second decade of the new millennium, advances in science, technology and medicine seem to occur almost every day. But for as much as we move forward toward the next “great new world”, shadows of our past continue to arise reminding us of our “roots”. 

It’s a quiet, Friday afternoon as I arrive at the offices of Lennard Hopper, at Deadwood Dental. With me are city archivist Mike Runge and Katherine Lamie of the South Dakota State Historical Society. We’re here to have x-rays taken of the mandible and cranium remnants of human remains found in Deadwood in 2012.

Katherine Lamie was the forensic anthropologist on the scene when the remains were uncovered. As Dr. Hopper takes care of a last-minute emergency case, Lamie tells me what that experience was like.

“There was a retaining wall project in March 2012,” Lamie explains. “There’s quite a large backhoe. I gave the backhoe. I gave the backhoe operator quite the pep-talk, and I said whatever you do don’t hit the skull. That’s what’s gonna’ tell us most about who this individual was. They always hit the skull.”

This time, however, the impact was a bit lower.

“It hit in the chest area and removed a portion of the chest,” recalls Lamie. “And the head kind of rolled out and on to some of the soil. At that point I yelled for him to stop and we tried to figure out what exactly was going on.”

What was going on was that human remains consistent with a male of European ancestry, between his late teens to early 20s, standing between five-feet-five inches and five-feet eleven inches tall had been uncovered. That preliminary identification was made after the remains were sent to Diane France, a Colorado-based forensic anthropologist.

Today, Dr. Hopper will x-ray all of that young man’s teeth before the mandible and cranium are sent to a forensic dentist in Georgia. He’ll also offer his own conclusions on the young man’s dental care and what might be deduced about his background.

“We’ll line up the sensor and we’ll start and do a full-mouth series of x-rays,” Dr. Hopper advises. “We’ll take shots all the way along each arch..”

A rubber band was actually essential in obtaining dental x-rays of "Jackson".
Credit Courtesy Deadwood City Archives

It turns out the biggest difficulty is finding a way to keep the x-ray sensors in place and position the teeth at just the right angle. Dr. Hopper tries scotch tape, cotton gauze and paper towels. Nothing works until his assistant suggests one of the most reliable multi-purpose fix-it tools known to man: a rubber band.

“This went pretty slick,” comments Dr. Hopper to general laughter. . “Once we switched to the rubber band theory here.”

“You’ll be presenting at the Nebraska School of Dentistry,” I respond. “You may not run into this too often, but if you do…”

“A rubber band works wonders,” his assistant observes.

Some of the same materials used to insulate and repair cavities today were used on the filings in "Jackson’s" teeth 130 years ago.
Credit Courtesy Deadwood City Archives

And that’s not the only surprise Dr. Hopper is in for today. After a series of standard x-rays, followed by a panoramic x-ray of both upper and lower teeth, Dr. Hopper offers his observations...including comments on the 4 amalgam and 2 gold fillings in the teeth of the man now identified as “Jackson” in Deadwood Dental’s patient files.

“He had a few active cavities yet that would have caused him more trouble in the future,” Dr. Hopper explains. “Judging by the number of dental restorations he had had in combination with the missing and decayed teeth that he has…it’s safe to say that the dental hygiene of the individual wasn’t up to modern standards. Appears to have a high carbohydrate diet from the amount of decay present, but it would be hard to know how that would compare with other individuals of the time.” 

Dr. Hopper notes that it’s obvious “Jackson” had regular access to a dentist at some point in his life prior to arriving in Deadwood. How long he remained in the Black Hills town without the availability of proper dental care prior to his death remains part of the ongoing investigation into who this man was.     

But regardless of those findings, Dr. Hopper points out that some of the same materials used to insulate and repair cavities today were used on the filings in "Jackson’s" teeth; fillings that are still intact 130 years after Deadwood’s heyday.