Ancient lives, new discoveries, a new exhibition at the British Museum, provides fresh insights into the way dental disease impacted on the lives and deaths of eight people from Ancient Egypt and Sudan.
With cutting edge visualisation technology the British Museum has studied ancient mummies non-invasively and to great effect, scanning them in segmented layers. Visitors to the interactive exhibition can use manual controls to explore the scans.
Nearly all eight mummies display dental pathologies, namely decay, tooth wear, tooth loss and numerous dental abscesses. One from the Roman period had lost five molars and would have been in great pain from dental abscesses.
An unknown man from Thebes developed a hole below his two front teeth, caused by a large dental abscess. Three-dimensional printing of his jawbone reveals the true extent of the damage. Dr Daniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology, told the BDJ that the replica: 'Allows us to present to the public the terrible effects of a dental abscess and is probably the first time a 3D replica of part of a mummy has been made.' Scans show two more abscesses in the man's maxillary teeth, which would have caused severe inflammation and discomfort. Excessive dental wear exposing the pulp chamber to the bacteria of the mouth could have led to a potentially fatal infection entering the bloodstream.
A Christian woman from Sudan who lived around 700 AD is missing two lower canines and it is unclear whether these were removed intentionally or not. Dental extractions have been observed at other Sudanese archaeological sites and hieroglyphic inscriptions found in Egyptian tombs and monuments reveal that individuals did specifically 'deal with teeth' and practise dentistry.1 Yet Dr Antoine says: 'We know very little about any practical dentistry in the ancient world, including Nile Valley populations. Some Nile valley populations appear to show higher than expected levels of dental wear and moderate tooth decay, but more work is required to explain these patterns.'
The high levels of dental problems these people suffered in life are surprising, when so much care was taken in death through embalming and burial rituals. Dr Antoine adds: 'They didn't suffer passively. They had medicine but also magic - the duality of their healthcare is very interesting.'
Ancient lives, new discoveries will run at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
Forshaw R J . The practice of dentistry in Ancient Egypt. Br Dent J 2009; 206: 481–486.
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Pacey, L. Ancient mummies reveal impact of dental disease. Br Dent J 216, 663 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.bdj.2014.520