At your twice-annual dental checkup, your hygienist always tells you to brush, floss, and use a plaque-removing mouthwash. Ever wonder what dental hygiene was like before the modern era?

In ancient Rome, they believed that tiny worms caused dental decay. Various tinctures were concocted from roots and seeds to remedy dental issues. One common recipe was to combine barley flour, vinegar, and honey, add salt, and burn it over charcoal. People would chew on these balls to whiten their teeth and give their mouths a pleasant odor. There are also reports that certain non-Roman Italians at the time used horse urine to whiten their teeth. Unfortunately, none of this is testable archaeologically.

What we can see in the teeth of the ancient Romans includes: cavities, plaque, gingivitis, developmental defects, and cultural practices (such as eating hard food, which causes chipping). Cavities are supposedly uncommon in the ancient Roman population, as is gingivitis (which results in periodontal disease that is apparent in bone). Although I have found evidence of these, what I find most often is dental calculus. Bacterial plaque is basically a very sticky substance that adheres to teeth. It contains elements of the food that you eat (such as proteins) in addition to microorganisms (both living and dead). Plaque usually sticks near the apical area of the tooth, the part that's nearest the gumline. It is often found on tooth surfaces that are near the salivary glands. Without cleaning, plaque can lead to gingivitis or an inflammation of the gum tissue, which can cause loss of bone around the tooth socket and eventually loss of the tooth. To some extent, the Romans were right about dental worms - or at least organisms that live on the teeth and cause problems. Bacterial plaque isn't a dire disease, though, and takes years to cause tooth loss. We find plaque on archaeological skeletons because after death, plaque mineralizes and is then known as dental calculus.

This is a picture of the premolars and molars from the left side of the mandible of a woman who was between 40 and 50 years old when she died. You are looking directly at the occlusal surfaces (the biting surfaces), and at the top of the photograph is the buccal surface (the part of the tooth that faces the cheek). All the yellowish-orange stuff that you see is dental calculus. It covers the biting surface, which likely made it harder for her to chew tough foods like meat. If you look closely, you might be able to see that there is a cavity in her first molar (the tooth in the middle of the picture), where a crescent-shaped area is excavated on the left. Although this woman did not appear to have lost any teeth from her rampant calculus problem, it is probable that she had pretty bad breath.

I don't know about you, but seeing pictures like this always makes me want to floss.


Anonymous said…
Yeah, it makes me wanna floss, too. And it also makes me glad that I live in a society where brushing, flossing,and having pretty teeth is a norm. And I also remember a certain someone always giving me the grossest looking skeletons, including incredibly gross teeth and mandibles. :)

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