Yes, There was an Egyptian Pyramid in Rural Australia with a Basement Full of Human Teeth
Caspers World in Miniature was a theme park in Victoria, Australia, a bit over half way between Adelaide and Melbourne. I don’t have a definitive source, but I believe it opened in 1976. My one and only visit to Caspers was in 2008, to break up that same, long drive. It’s taken me that much time to come to terms with what we found there.
Despite looking like it, The World in Miniature wasn’t abandoned. The owners still lived out front and we paid to enter. However, it was empty. Outdated exhibitions on unloved grounds. Our detour seemed destined to be a disappointment.
Then we got to the basement of the pyramid, and that’s where we found all the human teeth.
The summer of 2008 was an amazing time to be a music fan. The Australian dollar was weak, the festival promoters not yet bankrupt, the days warm and long. I found myself making several drives along the Princess Highway from my home in Adelaide to Melbourne to see the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Kings of Leon, and Arcade Fire at the festivals held on the east coast.
The Adelaide to Melbourne drive is about 750 kilometers (450 miles), the same distance as Brighton to Glasgow, or Cleveland to New York. Unlike those routes, however, there’s not much civilization between the cities in Australia. The eight hour drive is mostly straight and featureless.
It’s the kind of distance you can get over and done with in a single day, if you leave early, and don’t take long breaks. That’s what I usually did, but every time I passed the town of Stawell I would see the simple sign on the highway advertising Caspers World In Miniature, and every time I would regret not stopping to visit.
I knew nothing of the place, other than it was down a side road behind a country town, and that it was — presumably — the world in miniature. That’s all I really needed to know. I’ve always been fascinated by small things: miniature towns, model railways, the world’s tiniest horse. Perhaps that’s because, at 6"6' tall, your average tiny town is extra tiny from my perspective.
So it was that in January 2008, my eighth time driving past this sign in a few months, I made an impulsive decision. I hit the brakes and took the exit.
Sitting in the car with me is my little brother, Alex, and our friend Zee (who prefers to pretend none of this ever happened). Our trip to Melbourne had been short. We’d left Melbourne before breakfast that morning, after attending the Big Day Out until late the night before.
Neither of my passengers share any of my enthusiasm for delaying our return to Adelaide, but I was driving, and they were too hungover to argue. I drove us down a long, straight road to the gates of Caspers. From the car, through the cross-hatched fence, we spot an Eiffel Tower, maybe ten meters high. An Egyptian style pyramid looms over the road. A tingle of excitement runs through me.
The other reason the year is relevant is that 2008 was not the era of the smartphone. If it wasn’t for the compact Pentax digital camera I’d brought along for the festival, then there’d be no photos at all of this visit. I only owned one memory card which was almost full of concert pictures. I wish I’d documented more of this place. I wish I could answer the questions I still have.
It’s also relevant because Caspers World in Miniature is now closed, and has been possibly as far back as 2010. I can’t drive five hours to verify any of this, even if I wanted too.
Entrance to Caspers — in 2008 — is through the house of the owner/custodian. According to the photo timestamps, it’s around midday. A woman greets us, a couple of children who I assume are her family are playing in the background. They all seem surprised to see us. We pay our entry fees in cash — $8.50 each — receive our guide maps, and step into the park.
First impressions, the park is empty, and the park is dry. It’s the very middle of summer, almost the longest day of the year, and we’re visiting a piece of Australia not particularly moist to begin with. But this feels unnaturally dehydrated. Much of the grass beneath our feet is brown, everything we see is dusty, dirty, dead. We find shade in the first display pavilion, a small, concrete kind of bunker where opposing sides contain a dark diorama of miniature figures behind glass. A moment after stepping inside, the lights for the displays click on.
The owner has been watching us.
After seconds of entertainment in the pavilion, we re-emerge into the sun. Already I feel dejected. While driving by, I’d imagined a sprawling layout of tiny villages, trickling streams, maybe some cities populated with miniature people. I’d wanted to visit a miniature metropolis and stomp around it (but not on it), like an ultra-polite Godzilla. Seeing plastic figurines in fish tanks? I could do almost anywhere.
There was still hours of driving ahead of us, so we skip a few pavilions and visit mini-Holland.
It is about as thrilling as we expect.
After the photo opportunity (and zero polite Godzilla-ing) we make our way past the locked up wishing well and the dirt-streaked igloo (which didn’t even appear to be miniature?). We head for the top of the hill. There, I figure, the most exciting miniature display in the park will be waiting. Perched on the rise, overlooking the water-less water garden is… A shell museum. A small, single-room building. Inside? A few shelves of dusty shells.
There has been no sign of any other person in the park, nor hints anyone has visited recently. My remaining hope for our sojourn is the Steiermark Mountain Railway. I love model railways for the same reason I’m attracted to tiny towns. They’re so little! If there is an afterlife, I hope that it is Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg. There, within an old warehouse in the Speicherstadt district, lies the world’s largest model railway. Almost ten miles of track, over a thousand trains and a quarter-million tiny figurines.
Steiermark Mountain Railway is not a Wunderland. The train is not moving. Even the plastic trees look like they are parched and dying.
At that point we should have gone back to the car. I wasn’t satisfied. I insist we visit the pyramid.
That’s when things get weird.
At first the pyramid shows as much promise and dust as the rest of the park. We follow a corridor and go down the steps into the basement. We ignore the hieroglyphic code in the above picture. Perhaps it is a coded warning — beware, thousands of teeth ahead — but I didn’t capture enough of the cipher to translate it now.
Waiting in the basement is more of the bland. Display cases are arranged throughout the underground space. It appears the owners had tried to stick with the Egyptology theme for about two shelves, then they’d run out of figurines and inside the next few displays they had American Indian models, Indigenous Australian artwork, Chinese dolls and plenty of other miscellaneous old toys.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I’ve shared this experience from the start of the day, and included every exhibit we stopped by. It’s because I want the context of what happened next to be true to how we experienced it. On the road, far from home, having seen every mundane, decrepit detail of this theme park. Then you can see what I saw next, the way I saw it. Another doll: Huey Dewey, and Louie, propped up on something white and odd.
Because, upon seeing a literal platter of human teeth, my first thought was, oh, that must be some more shells…
It was not shells.
While staring at this, my brain processing, my brother calls out to me, “Uh… Are they real teeth?”
He is not looking at what I am looking at. He stands in front of a second display. At some point a dot-matrix printer has spat out a “TEETH FROM AROUND THE WORLD” label. And there, in the bottom right, teeth. Definitely teeth.
Even the stand is made of teeth.
And more teeth.
As the shock wears off, the three of us look at each other. We realize the situation we find ourselves in. We’re hundreds of kilometers from any city, in the basement of a miniature (but not that miniature) Egyptian pyramid. We haven’t told anyone we’d be stopping here. Teeth are everywhere. There are no more displays to see, just a windowless door marked Exit. We huddle together. I approach the door, try the handle, it doesn’t budge. Locked.
Okay, it wasn’t really locked, but you should have seen the look on my brother’s face.
In fact, the door leads outside and we leave the pyramid, blinking, into the sun. The events in the basement immediately assume a blurry, dreamlike quality. We’re all tired, dehydrated, road-weary, and we’ve got a long way to go to get through before home. We climb into the car, begin driving.
As the kilometers tick over and Stawell fades in the rear-view, the events in Caspers World in Miniature slip away like they never happened. A shared delusion, perhaps. We don’t talk about what we’ve seen. The part of the brain that wants to rationalize everything has already smoothed it over in our heads. We’re not there anymore. We’re safe.
It’s only once I’m home and reviewing the photos from the trip that alarm bells trigger. Clicking through the photos in order — the dusty displays, the shell museum, the pyramid, the dental arrangements — do I realize those teeth were truly there, on display, removed from real people’s mouths.
Some Google detective work, corroborated by the photos, reveals that former dentist David Lye was at some point a co-owner of Caspers World In Miniature. This doesn’t exactly explain why there are teeth in the pyramid.
A newspaper article from 2000 in Melbourne’s The Age claimed the retiree used the “scraps” and “false teeth” from his Ballarat dental practice to create dental jewelry. A 2004 article in the Ballarat Courier runs contrary to this, suggesting: “[Lye] asked children of a family friend to hold onto their baby teeth, and then used them to build a castle.” I’m not sure how many hundreds of children that family friend had. Lye would be in his mid-eighties now, and I could not reach him for comment.
As for Caspers, its fate is also unknown. I do know that at some point in the past decade it briefly became a Les Mills gym. I haven’t been able to find if those workouts were held in the pyramid’s basement. For all I know, the room is still there, full of teeth, maybe waiting for the next visitors to pass through. And, arguably, there was plenty of space spare on the shelves to add a few more molars and incisors.
Do you know more about Caspers World in Miniature, or David Lye? Do you own a copy of his book, Dentalogical Art? I’m digging further into the history behind both, trying to find where the teeth came from, who they belonged to in the first place, and how they came to rest in a miniature Egyptian pyramid in rural Victoria. If you have any tips, please hit up my Twitter - @BradMWriter or leave a response below.