Most young people would be surprised to learn that hip hop moguls were not the first ones to sport flashy gold grills and teeth studded with gems. There have recently been several archeological finds from Europe and America that show that people living over 7,000 years ago were also jazzing up their smiles. But who were they, and why were they doing it?
Archeologists recently uncovered a Celtic grave in northern France that contained a skull with a metal pin driven into the jaw to hold fake tooth in place. After examining the pin they determined that it would only have been strong enough to hold a decorative tooth in place, not keep a replacement in spot through constant use. By comparing this skull with other skulls from around Europe and northern Africa they were able to make a guess that the fake tooth could have been made out of shell, calcite, bone, or a soft metal such as gold.
But how can you tell the pin was put in during the person’s life, and not after they died?
Many ancient cultures believed in an afterlife that required your body to be whole when you entered it, which included a full set of teeth. This is why post mortem dentistry has been recorded in various areas, especially ancient Egypt. However, by examining how the bone grows or doesn’t grow around implants, archeologists are able to determine if the subjects were alive when they received dental work. This is how they can say with such certainty that the pin held a decorative tooth while the person was alive, and was not stuck into their mouth after death.
A little more recently, only about 2,500 years ago, the Mayans of Central America began an odd tradition of setting gems and semi-precious stones right into their mouths. They had very skilled dentists for their era, who were able to make small indentations in the fronts of patients’ teeth with a tiny drill. They were always careful not to go to deep and puncture the pulp or hit the nerve, but they still managed to go deep enough in order to create a solid foundation for the gem stones.
The dentist would then set the stones into their patients’ teeth and use a mixture of resin as glue to make sure the stones would not fall out. The practice of be-jeweling teeth was fairly common, with about 40% of the skeletons found showing signs that they had the procedure done. Interestingly, it does not appear to have been a sign of wealth or social standing. Many common skeletons had bejeweled mouths, while a few royals did not. The practice also seems to have been fairly common in both men and women. A better way to think about it would be like a tattoo. It was a way for Mayans to express their individuality and add a little spice to their lives. So the next time you see someone on TV with a smile full of gold and gems, you will know that they are just carrying on a tradition that began long ago.
Dr. Coleman is a leading cosmetic dentist in the United States, as well as an international lecturer in dental techniques and technology. With a great sense of humor and a sense of compassion for others, Dr. Coleman takes pride in improving the lives and smiles of his patients. To learn more about Dr. Coleman or his practice, visit his Facebook and Twitter pages!