Brazil emperor’s toothbrush found in Rio subway dig

Archaeologists excavating the site of a future subway extension in Rio de Janeiro have unearthed more than 200,000 artifacts from the 17th to 19th centuries. Many of them are in pristine condition, even fragile pieces like glass bottles and ceramic containers, and they have an illustrious provenance. There was a slaughterhouse on the site between 1853 and 1881, but before that archaeologists believe it was a garbage dump for the nearby imperial palace.

Garbage is often a rich source of archaeological treasure, and this landfill is an outstanding example of that having preserved decades, even centuries of material history of the imperial family and other area residents. It’s a massive combined record of the mundane and rarefied, mundane because they are consumer products like toothbrushes and water bottles, rarefied because what would be an everyday drug store purchase for us peasants was a bespoke, finely crafted and doubtless very expensive import for the emperors of Brazil.

The ivory toothbrush thought to have belonged to Dom Pedro II, who ruled over Brazil from 1831-1889, has turned brown with age. Its boar bristles are long gone, but the inscription remains legible: “His Majesty the Emperor of Brazil.” A round white porcelain pot emblazoned with “to the Queen of Portugal Maria of Saboia” is thought to have contained mint-flavored tooth paste made specially for the queen by a chemist with offices in London and Paris.

The site has also yielded dozens of intact glass and ceramic bottles thought to have once contained water imported from Europe for the imperial family. Six sealed bottles still contain unidentified liquids that the team plans to send to a laboratory for analysis. Dozens of coins and pipes were also found, along with a golden ring and a tie tack.

Archaeologists believe the artifacts survived in such exceptional condition because the area was swampy and waterlogged. The wet conditions provided cushioning and protection for breakable objects like bottles and jars, keeping many of them intact without even a crack.

Excavations have been suspended for the time being for the construction of the new subway tunnels which are part of the city’s preparations for the 2016 Olympics. All the dig trenches have been covered with multiple layers to protect them from damage during construction and to clearly mark the sites. When the tunnels and stations are complete at the end of 2015, excavations will resume. Lead archaeologist Claudio Prado de Mello believes they’ve only scratched the surface, that there may be as many as 800,000 artifacts on this site.

The team of more than 30 archaeologists and historians will spend the next three years working on the vast store of artifacts they’ve unearthed. The finds will be cleaned and catalogued, the broken pieces and fragments will be collected and puzzled together. All the laboratory work is being underwritten by the company that won the subway building contract.

4 thoughts on “Brazil emperor’s toothbrush found in Rio subway dig

  1. I believe the smaller bottle of the two shown with liquid is the type the French perfumery Guerlain used in the late 19th very early 20th c. It looks like a separation has occured in the perfume ingredients. Fascinating!

    1. That would certainly fit with the other high end products on the site, but it might be a bit of late date for an imperial connection since the slaughterhouse was there by the mid-1800s.

  2. Had a bit of a brain-fart. The bottle looks to be Baccarat, the type they were producing throughout the 19th c., but it’s not turn of the century Guerlain(the Guerlain bottle I was thinking of is slightly different and made by a different company as well), it was probably Houbigant or one or two of the other major French perfume houses of the mid-19th c.

    This may have been the last of the royal garbage, iow. 🙂

  3. To add, none of the major perfume houses made products “for the masses” until the *late* 19th c. Before that it was all royal commissions.

    There seems to be a cutoff date of the garbage? I’m not sure if this is stated in any of these articles, but regarding the bottle in question, it was also **revived** by Houbigant in the first few years of the 20thc for the mass market and became semi-popular, used for several of their scents within the next few decades, so if some of the trash was post-slaughterhouse era, it could all be as mundane as that. The gist of the article makes it seem like a defined era though, “pre-slaughterhouse” if you will. And if that’s the case I have no doubt it’s “royal” trash.

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