Ancient Dentistry Part 1: Drills, Gemstones and Toothpaste!

dentistry-316945_640 (1)We all cringe at the thought of going to the dentist — and that’s with the comfortable recliners, the soothing music, the anesthetics and analgesics. Imagine what a visit to the dentist must have been like thousands of years ago.

In modern-day Pakistan, where the earliest evidence of dentistry has been found, Stone Age dentists were wielding drills made of flint. Nine-thousand-year-old teeth found at a Neolithic graveyard showed clear signs of drilling, but also signs that rotting gum tissue had been removed, leading researchers to consider the crude drills “surprisingly effective.”[1]

In fact, in a 2006 article for the journal Nature, researchers wrote about the “perfect,” “amazing” holes those flint drills had made.[2] The holes were about one-seventh of an inch deep, except in one case where the dentist had managed to drill a hole in the inside back end of a tooth, boring out toward the front of the mouth.[3] There is no evidence of dental fillings; however, at least one researcher believes some sort of “tarlike material or soft vegetable matter” may have been placed inside the holes.[4] Unfortunately for those early patients, it’s unlikely that the dentists used any kind of anesthetic.

The tooth found in Pakistan. Image credit: Image credit: Roberto Macchiarelli/Nature

The tooth found in Pakistan. Image credit: Image credit: Roberto Macchiarelli/Nature

Researchers at the site in Pakistan surmised that a small bow was used to drive the drill tips into the teeth. They said that the drilling was probably done to alleviate pain from cavities. Several flint drill heads were found at the burial site, as well as beads fashioned from bone, stone and shell, so it’s likely that the area’s jewelry-makers supplied the local dentists with the tools of their trade.[5]

While no fillings were found at the site in Pakistan, a site in Slovenia yielded what may be a 6,500 year old dental filling during an excavation in 2012. A jaw was discovered that contained a tooth with traces of beeswax on it. The tooth was damaged in a way that is “consistent with damage that happens in a person’s lifetime” (not postmortem damage) and the wax was radiocarbon dated to the same time as the tooth. The beeswax was only found in the single cracked tooth of the jaw and was likely placed there to mitigate the pain.[6]

Ancient grills. Image credit: José C. Jiménez López

Ancient grills. Image credit: José C. Jiménez López

Remedying dental maladies wasn’t the only reason ancient dentists found to chisel away at teeth. Cosmetic dentistry was popular in various ancient cultures as well. As many as 2,500 years ago, Native Americans were — to use the popular phrase — blinging out their teeth. In Mexico, anthropologists found thousands of teeth that had been notched, grooved and bedazzled with semiprecious gems.[7] The anthropologists think that such decorations weren’t necessarily an indicator of one’s social standing as skeletons belonging to royals from that region and time period had teeth that had never been tampered with and were free from bling.

The dentists in this case used drills made from a hard stone such as obsidian capable of carving into bone. Fortunately for the patients, the dentists appear to have known what they were doing and avoided drilling into the “pulp” of the tooth where nerve endings are located (although the procedure would still have been excruciating). A paste made from plant resin, crushed bones and other ingredients was used to affix the gems to the teeth.[8]

Just this summer, archaeologists at a Celtic burial site in France discovered a skeleton with a dental implant. The implant, an iron pin that screwed into the gum, held a fake tooth in place, but the archaeologists aren’t sure how the replacement tooth was made.[9]

That particular skeleton dates from the 3rd century BCE, but humans had been replacing their lost teeth thousands of years before that. In Algeria, archaeologists found a 7,000-year-old skull sporting a tooth fashioned realistically from bone, while in Egypt a 5,500-year-old skeleton was equipped with a tooth made from shell. However, these fake teeth were likely implanted after death, a branch of dentistry no longer practiced catering to those embarking on the afterlife.[10]

A CT Scan of an Egyptian mummy revealed severe dental issues.

A CT Scan of an Egyptian mummy revealed severe dental issues.

The ancient Egyptians, it seems, were particularly prone to the maladies of the mouth. In 2012, anthropologists at the University of Zurich examined over 3,000 Egyptian mummies and found that 18 percent showed evidence of dental woes of some kind.[11] This may have been owing to their diet of coarse grains that aggressively wore down teeth. Unfortunately, scant evidence has been found of “dental interventions” in ancient Egypt, one of the few being a cavity packed with linen discovered in an Egyptian mummy about 2,100 years old.[12] Although the Egyptians did develop their own brand of toothpaste, it clearly had limited effect and pain seems to have been a significant and ongoing dental problem. In A History of Dentistry (published in 1909), author Vincenzo Guerini included recipes found on ancient papyri that Egyptians used to ease toothaches and other dental maladies. One of these recipes involved making a mash of beans, dough, honey, green lead and verdigris, while other remedies involved pastes made from fennel seeds, olive oil, onion, cow’s milk, fresh dates, cake…a feast of medicines that, in all likelihood, just increased the patient’s agony.[13]

Our takeaway from all of this? While each of these dental procedures would have been painful, it would be far better to have been a Neolithic patient in Pakistan or a Native American with a penchant for sparkly grills than an ancient Egyptian with a toothache and some old linen! And as for your next trip to the dentist, while your lip is losing all feeling, your tongue is flopping around your consonants and vowels and drinking liquids of any kind is a distant dream, think back to the pre-novocaine ancients.  Now doesn’t that make you feel better?

Read Part 2 of our Ancient Dentistry blog to discover how a 3,500-year-old mummy’s tooth solved one of the greatest mysteries of ancient Egypt and became one of the most remarkable finds of modern times. 

Also, click here to read more about the dental implant found in France on the website of our curricula partner, Ancient Origins.


StephanieAuthor: Stephanie Castellano lives and works in Alexandria, Virginia, a historic town just across the river from Washington, DC. She is a writer and editor for a local professional association, and volunteers at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. She loves discovering anecdotes and little-known stories from our collective past that have been forgotten in the sweep of grander events, and writing about them to bring the people and places involved back to life.


[1] Pappas, B. (2014, July 23). Got Cavities? Ancient Teeth Reveal Bacteria’s Evolution. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

[2] Avasthi, A. (n.d.). 9,000-Year-Old Drilled Teeth Are Work of Stone Age Dentists. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dig uncovers ancient roots of dentistry. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2014.

[6] Knapp, A. (n.d.). Archaeologists Find A 6,500 Year Old Dental Filling. Retrieved August 27, 2014.

[7] Roach, J. Ancient Gem-Studded Teeth Show Skill of Early Dentists. (n.d.). Retrieved August 26, 2014.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ghose, T. (2014, July 14). Vintage Bling: Ancient Celts May Have Had Shiny Dental Implants. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bad Teeth Tormented Ancient Egyptians. Retrieved August 26, 2014.http://news.discovery.com/history/mummies-teeth-disease-diagnosis.htm

[12] Prigg, M. (2012, October 10). Dentistry, ancient Egyptian-style: Mummy found with teeth stuffed with linen in attempt to cure agonizing tooth-ache. Retrieved August 26, 2014.

[13] Guerini, V. (1909). A history of dentistry from the most ancient times until the end of the eighteenth century,. Philadelphia and New York: Lea & Febiger. https://archive.org/details/ahistorydentist00guergoog

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Watermelon and Feta Salad: Celebrate an Ancient Summer Fruit

Image credit: Lorianne DiSabato on Flickr.

Image credit: Lorianne DiSabato on Flickr.

As summer in the northern hemisphere takes its final breaths, we’re all trying to cling to those sun-kissed moments and never-ending days that are filled with family, food and fun. AntiquityNOW wants to help you hold on a bit longer to these waning days so this week we’re bringing you a refreshing watermelon and feta salad recipe. Perfect for barbecues, pool parties or lazy days at home, watermelon is truly the taste of summer and feta is the perfect companion to the sweet, ruby red fruit. And while you’re enjoying the unexpectedly delicious pairing, you can learn about the ancient history behind this quintessential summertime melon. Continue reading

Call for Entries for 2015 LegacyQuest International Film and Video Festival for Tweens

Letter of Intent Deadline- December 12, 2014

Final Entry Submission Deadline- February 27, 2015

View our invitational video below and scroll down for details about the festival and how your students can get involved!



LegacyQuest large logo blue border

AntiquityNOW (AN) and Archaeological Legacy Institute (ALI) announce a call for entries for the 2015 LegacyQuest International Children’s Film and Video Festival. Held in conjunction with The Archaeology Channel’s (TAC) International Film and Video Festival, May 15-19, 2015 in Eugene, Oregon, the LegacyQuest festival invites young learners to explore how the ancient past influences their lives today through visual storytelling. The competition is open to students between the ages of 12 and 15 (6th – 8th grades) in the United States and abroad. To be eligible for consideration, films must be five minutes in length, produced in 2014 or 2015 and focus on subject matter related to antiquity’s legacy. Continue reading

KIDS’ BLOG! Rain, Rain Go Away: Ancient Weather, Modern Predictions

hurricane

Update! This post was originally published on June 25, 2013. Hurricane season 2014 has been pretty quiet so far, but you never know when a tiny little storm system can gain momentum and become a full-fledged hurricane. Ancient civilizations had to face threats from weather just like we do today, but they didn’t have the amazing technology we have that can track and predict storms. Read our post and learn more about ancient weather and take advantage of our all new activities after the post! Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Ancient Chicken Curry in a Hurry

Image credit: kspoddar

Image credit: kspoddar

Curry.  It’s a spiced dish with a definition that continues to change and expand as new chefs and even new regions of the world explore its flavorful possibilities. Today, curry is enjoyed in a multitude of forms. This week we’re bringing you the recipe for Chicken Curry in a Hurry so you can enjoy this dish even when you have a million other tasks vying for your time. And we’re also going to provide you with a quick history behind this ancient food so you can learn while you cook! Continue reading

Exploring LegacyQuest 2014! Dancing Through the Ages

LegacyQuest large logo blue borderWe’ve reached the final week of our Exploring LegacyQuest series and our featured video is another amazing Honorable Mention from the Morganton Day School in North Carolina. These students danced their way to success with a film that explores the origins of dance and the various styles that have emerged throughout the ages. This lively entry was produced by middle school students Edgar, Caitie, Delaney, Annie Grace and Harrison with the helping hand of their inspirational teacher, Britta Gramer. Continue reading

AntiquityNOW Celebrates Shark Week!

Strong, agile, mysterious, beautiful, ancient. Sharks have embodied our terrors and captured our imaginations for thousands of years. Today we celebrate and study sharks, even dedicating an entire week of television and social media to these denizens of the deep. Before popular culture caught on to the shark frenzy, however, ancient civilizations revered, respected, feared and even worshipped the shark. Below you’ll find a collection of images showing how some long ago cultures represented this iconic creature.

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Bon Appetit Shark Week! Eat Like the Ancient Shark Callers with Papua New Guinea’s Chicken Pot

Grey Reef Shark off Papua New Guinea. Image courtesy of Marc Tarlock.

Grey Reef Shark off Papua New Guinea. Image courtesy of Marc Tarlock.

In honor of Shark Week we’re bringing you a recipe from the island of Papua New Guinea where people continue to practice the ancient practice of shark calling. The Chicken Pot is a simple dish imbued with the flavors of the islands and reminiscent of the meals the ancient villagers would have eaten. All of the ingredients can be found on the islands and are still eaten today. Before we dig in to a delicious meal, let’s learn more about the shark callers of Papua New Guinea. Continue reading

Exploring LegacyQuest 2014! A Modern Retelling of Pandora’s Box

LegacyQuest large logo blue borderThis week we’re featuring another Honorable Mention from The Baldwin School in Pennsylvania. With an in depth retelling of the story of Pandora’s Box and an insightful Q&A to reveal its modern connections, the viewer is treated to a new view of a classic mythological tale. The illuminating film was created by middle school students Rebecca, Menal, Alex, Katrina and Theresa with the help and inspiration of their teacher, Preston Bannard. Continue reading

A Brief History of the Timeless Dilemma of Censorship and America’s Response

Image courtesy of Tyler Menezes on Flickr.

Image courtesy of Tyler Menezes on Flickr.

The life of Socrates is in the hands of 500 reticent jurors. He stands trial for poisoning the minds of Athenian youth and inspiring rebellion with anti-democratic teachings. Silently, the jurors cast their ballots into one of two urns that represent guilt or innocence…

Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death. Shielding the public from dangerous ideas outweighed one man’s right to free expression on the scales of Athenian justice. Throughout history, society’s weighing of public good against individual rights has shaped the history of censorship. It’s a dilemma both ancient and familiar. Continue reading