Teeth and Archaeology (Part One)

Teeth, at this current time, have been the main focus most of my research. I hope to write more about teeth found in ancient tombs and what they can teach us about food, the people, and the climate. Here the first article (hopefully out of many) on teeth and archaeology. This article was actually written about a year ago so the information may be older but is nonetheless still fascinating.

What would we do without modern luxuries? Beyond having the time to ask such rhetorical questions, we would have a lot on their plate. Next question: what would the items on the plate do to our teeth?

Ancient Egyptians lived before the dawn of Crest and Colgate. Their dental care was primitive at most. This leaves an interesting area of research for modern archaeologists and paleopathologists who wish to understand more about ancient afflictions and diseases. See, the many teeth left behind in mummies and skeletons provide unique insight into the everyday life of those who came before us.

Bread, Sand, and Death
The ancient Egyptians were sometimes known as artophagoi (αρτωφαγοι) or “bread eaters” by the ancient Greeks. This was because, to outsiders, they seemed to only eat their famous bread, made from a multitude of Nile grains like wheat and barley. Being their most popular dish, bread, however, caused many problems. No, I’m not talking about the terrors of carbohydrates. The ancient Egyptians had an even worse threat: sand.

Archaeologists have found mummies and human remains with teeth that show gross attrition (decay to the outer layer) and dental problems. Although we have a proportion of ancient Egyptian dentitions that have all the necessary characteristics that would create attrition, many do not. This means that decay could come from a variety of sources. Many believe that sand is the root to most of these dental afflictions. The only question is how did the sand get into their bread?


The “artophagoi” prepare their bread.
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/Egyptian_harvest.jpg

There is no simple answer when you are talking about a culture of people who lived near the Sahara, perhaps the sandiest place on the planet.

Many assume that the sand would be introduced to the bread in the grinding process. Although the specific grinding processes might have changed over time and differed from baker to baker, one popular process found in many ancient Egyptian archaeological sites and tombs is the quern. Ancient Egyptians rotate a block on top of another in order to grind grains. Other techniques included pushing one stone down onto grains sitting on a grinding block (sometimes referred to as metate with the hand stone being called a mano).  Either way, the grinding process could have introduced tons of fine minerals tugging and crushing between the two stones.

Others believe that the Egyptians could’ve added in the sand themselves. Pliny detailed how the Carthaginians would add pounded bricks, chalk, and sand before grinding their grain to produce a fine flour.

However, sand could have come into contact with dough and bread at many different steps in the bread-making process. The fine grains found in bread left by the ancient Egyptians could have come anywhere from the soil in which the grains were grown, to the materials used for harvesting, to the dirt and mud from the walls of the bakery. The point of the matter is that there were enough inorganic minerals in Egyptian bread that could reek havoc on teeth to cause infections or a tooth or root abscess. This was dangerous for a people who did not have antibiotics and could have lead to death. Some historians and scholars believe even Amenhotep III died due to an infection in his teeth cause by his sandy bread.

Teeth and Drought
Teeth provide strong evidence of increasing drought in the Nile Valley. Of course, Egypt is one of the driest environments on the planet, however this was not always the truth. The truth is that throughout the hundreds of years that the Egyptian civilization thrived, Egypt gradually became more and more dry.

Researchers in France discovered this downward trend when studying the isotopes in mummies’ teeth. Teeth have different ratios of oxygen and strontium atoms depending on the environment the human lived in. Measuring these ratios, especially the ratio of two different oxygen isotopes, can give scientists an idea of what Egyptians ate and how much water they used. They noticed that the teeth demonstrated a trend of increasing drought from the very beginning of Egyptian civilization to the Late Period. However, this trend also demonstrates that the Egyptian diet did not change, even though the amount of available water did.

The results demonstrate an overall change in Egyptian climate rather than displaying short-term events. Although the study was recent, the results are nothing new. Scientists have known that the Nile River Valley and the Sahara have been drying out for centuries. Sometime over 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, the Sahara was much wetter and covered with lakes and grasslands. Just goes to show how important human remains can be when studying climate.

The study was led by researcher Alexandra Touzeau at the  Musée des Confluences de Lyon in France.