In A Nutshell
As disgusting and un-hygienic as much of history has been, there’s one thing that many cultures have had in common—the practice of dental implants and tooth decorating. While the Maya blinged out their teeth by drilling holes and inserting minerals and stones, evidence suggests that the Celts followed the Etruscan example of sporting gold teeth. The Vikings, on the other hand, went a little simpler and just etched a series of lines into their teeth.
The Whole Bushel
Hygiene has come a long way, and we’re not just talking about indoor plumbing. We’re talking about ideas like the communal sponges used in the public toilets of ancient Rome and the syphilis-ridden streets of Florence, but there is one part of the human body that has a long history of being a source of pride: teeth.
Dental implants are a matter of practicality, used to replace teeth that are missing for one reason or another. As far back as ancient Egypt—around 2500 BC—implants were being made from shells and teeth were being stabilized with the insertion of gold wire. A few centuries later, and we know the Etruscans were making whole teeth, mostly from the bones of oxen. The Phoenicians were doing the same thing, but they were carving their replacement teeth out of ivory.
On the other side of the Atlantic, implants have been found in Honduras and dated to around the year AD 800. And those are fairly recent: One skull found in Algeria still had an intact replacement tooth that had been made from bone 7,000 years ago.
But decorating teeth is something different, more cosmetic than practical. The tradition has its own storied past.
When archaeologists excavated a Celtic burial site in La Chene, France, they found a skeleton that had once been sporting dental bling. The iron pin was still in place, where it would have been inserted into the gums to hold a replacement tooth for the central maxillary incisor. That’s important, the researchers note, as it’s one of the teeth seen when you smile or speak.
The skeleton’s other teeth showed no signs of damage, had no cavities and no tartar or wearing, and some of the other things she was buried with—like bronze jewelry—suggested that she was certainly not one of the ordinary rabble.
While it’s possible that she sustained some kind of injury that would have caused her tooth to fall out or be removed, they say it was also likely to have had a gold replacement. Gold teeth were common among the Celts’ Etruscan trading partners, and the Celts likely copied them.
Over in Mesoamerica, the excavation of the burial site of a 10-year-old yielded more evidence of the rare practice of filing the corners of the front teeth and inserting jadeite inlays into the front of the incisors of a child. Using stones and minerals for dental inlays was common, but typically seen in adults.
There are a couple of different ideas about why it might have been done to someone so young.
One possibility was that the teeth had been drilled and decorated before the child was offered up as a sacrifice or that they had been decorated postmortem as a sign of loss or mourning.
In Viking culture, no inlay or studs were needed. Jewels, gold, and mineral inlays weren’t done, but teeth were filed.
Examination of a group of skeletons dating from between AD 800 and AD 1050 showed that two dozen (of the group of 557) had horizontal marks filed into their teeth in what must have been an excruciatingly painful procedure. The Viking skeletons were the first to show signs of this kind of dental modification in Europe, and it’s similar to modifications of the same time that were done by peoples living in the Great Lakes area of North America.
Show Me The Proof
National Geographic: Vikings Filed Their Teeth, Skeleton Study Shows
LiveScience: Ancient Celts May Have Had Shiny Dental Implants
A Brief Historical Perspective on Dental Implants, Their Surface Coatings and Treatments, by Celeste M Abraham
The Cultural Modification of Teeth by the Ancient Maya, by Geoffrey E. Braswell and Megan R. Pitcavage