Part One: Problems with teeth
In Book 2 of The Histories, by the Greek author Herodotus, we are informed that in ancient Egypt there were doctors to treat each specific part of the body: the specialists! Of physicians we read:
‘Some are eye-doctors, some deal with the head, others with the
teeth or the belly……’
Of course, it is important to note that Herodotus was writing during the Fifth century BC and so his comments may only be relevant to that period of history. However, the decoration on a wooden panel in the Cairo Museum, dating to the Third Dynasty (ca. 2686-2613 BC) a much earlier era, shows the figure of Hesire, of whom the accompanying inscription indicates that he was a Chief of Dentists and Physicians, seemingly giving support to these comments made by Herodotus, suggesting that there was a much earlier practice in specilialised medical practices.
Yet, examinations of the teeth of the ancient Egyptian dead clearly indicate that, if there really were any specialist dentists, then they would have been fully employed for, if truth be told, a notable number of the rich and powerful of ancient Egypt certainly had need of such help; many kings (the mummy seemingly identified as that of Amenhotep III, for example) and members of their families had quite an appalling range of dental conditions. Let’s take a look at some of these problems.
Attrition, the wearing down of the tooth’s surface, is a common feature of ancient Egyptian teeth (fig. 1).
Traditionally, this attrition has been attributed to grit and silica particles observed in ancient bread. The idea being that as the molar teeth masticate bread the particles of sand are trapped between the biting surfaces of the teeth thus causing damage. However, as the frontal teeth (incisors) are often seen to be worn down in many ancient Egyptian dentitions, perhaps another cause for attrition could be postulated? Perhaps we should question whether or not , as in some ancient (and even some modern) cultures, the Egyptians used their jaws and teeth as tools – perhaps regularly holding items (artists’ brushes, for example) between the teeth – this might affect the appearance of the tooth surface.
Whatever the actual cause of attrition there can be no doubt that it can lead to other dental conditions. If teeth are worn down then eventually the inner pulp is exposed. Thus, infections can set in causing further complications such as abscesses (fig. 2).
Many modern people know the agony of dental abscesses, the experience would certainly have been no less enjoyable for the ancient Egyptians. Luckily, people today have the benefit of an experienced dental profession and soothing medicants but, what was the situation in ancient times?
Some researchers have suggested that the doctor in ancient times would have drilled a hole in the jaw close to the site of the abscess and they have cited examples of perfectly round holes ‘bored’ into human jaws as proof. Certainly, this would have been a useful, but painful, way of relieving the agony of a dental abscess. However, what is often not taken into account is the fact that ‘Mother Nature’ may play her part in relieving the situation. Sometimes the pressure of infected pus within the abscess can build up to a pitch whereby it can only move in one of two directions. The most beneficial movement being through the bone of the affected jaw. In this situation the loss of the tooth is likely and, most interestingly, this ‘procedure’ leaves a perfectly round hole as evidence of the event (fig. 3) – this I feel is what has caused researchers to believe in the drilling of holes in jaws!
Incidentally, the second direction or option for the infected pus is to not burst through the bone but travel through the blood system, possibly causing death. The most likely direction of movement here would be towards the brain; personally, I feel that abscesses, as an unseen cause of death in ancient Egyptian individuals, is vastly under explored!
In my experience it seems that it was the more wealthy people in ancient Egypt who were more likely to experience unpleasant dental conditions. A prime example is that of the mummy currently identified as the pharaoh Amenhotep III, noted above. His body (if it is him, note 1) is almost a ‘catalogue’ of dental problems: abscesses, worn teeth, gum diseases and broken or missing teeth. For this extremely wealthy man, and others like him, it is likely that an overly rich diet contributed to poor dental health. I am not saying that the poorer members of society always had good teeth but, in some ways, their more basic diet may have circumvented some of these dental conditions. The wealthy owned cattle and had easy access to meat and other rich items in their diet which can affect the health of their teeth.
These are just some brief notes on a few aspects of dental health in ancient Egypt (note 2) – there is much more to say but I think this gives readers an idea of the situation.
1. Some researches still consider that many of the royal mummies of ancient Egypt have been wrongly identified. The majority of these mummies were not found in their own tombs but had, in antiquity, been moved to secret caches to prevent further desecration of the bodies by tomb robbers.
2. For further information see: Joyce Filer (1995), Disease, London: British Museum Press, chapter 7.