Gauguin’s teeth found in well
Bovril jar, perfume and morphine also discovered
LONDON. An archaeological dig on the remote Marquesan island of Hiva Oa has uncovered the secrets of the water well used by Paul Gauguin. The buried objects range from a New Zealand beer bottle to four human teeth.
Gauguin lived in the village of Atuona from 1901 until his death two years later. He built his own Maori-style hut, “la Maison du Jouir” (house of pleasure), and dug a well just outside. The Marquesans did not use wells, but springs, and after Gauguin died it was filled with rubbish from his home.
The results of the excavation are revealed in the inaugural issue of Van Gogh Studies, an annual scholarly review from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, out this month. The essay, by Gauguin specialist Caroline Boyle-Turner, is the first report in English on the 2000 dig (a few other details emerged earlier in specialist publications).
Objects from Gauguin’s time were found around 2.7 metres below ground level. There was a Bovril jar from England, and various liquor bottles. Five broken pieces of hand-decorated plate made in Quimper presumably date from when Gauguin was painting in Brittany.
Broken perfume bottles were found, embossed “France”. Dr Boyle-Turner notes that “a way to please women in Polynesia was to offer them perfume”.
Artistic materials found included three chunks of orange and ochre minerals, still smelling of linseed oil, suggesting that Gauguin made his own paint. A broken coconut shell with pigments was probably used as a palette.
Gauguin is likely to have suffered from syphilis, and had serious eczema. A buried syringe and two ampoules which had contained morphine were presumably for pain relief. The four teeth show signs of severe decay, suggesting they are European (the Marquesans did not eat sugar). They are likely to be Gauguin’s, and he may have had them extracted and then saved them.
The finds from the well now belong to the municipality of Atuona, which bought the site and erected a replica of Gauguin’s Maison du Jouir in 2003.