1001 Uses For Dental Floss # 62- A Woman Scribe Got The Blues


A Woman Scribe Got The Blues

You may recall the name–Dr. Christina Warinner, who is an anthropologist, last mentioned in these pages (1001 Uses #4) because she discovered that ancient humans used one type of grass to floss their teeth. Well, here she is again, this time with colleague Anna Radini of the University of York in England, still studying dental calculus, AKA tartar, but on the teeth of a medieval woman’s skeleton. 

What is special about this woman and this skeleton, and these teeth? Well, this anonymous woman’s remains were disinterred from the graveyard of a monastery of a small religious community at Dalheim, Germany. And what they did at this monastery was create illuminated manuscripts. 

Monastery–monks, right? Wrong, sort of. It turns out that this woman was somehow involved with creating these illuminated manuscripts. You know the ones, those beautifully illustrated hand-written biblical texts displaying fanciful brightly multicoloured drawings of saints and demons and dragons along their margins and decorated with real gold foil. 

That’s not done anymore, not since Johannes Gutenberg put an end to all that when he invented the printing press and inaugurated the Age of the Book (I made that title up, but he did do that.) Anyway, I digress. Back to the blue dye.

Anyway, what does that have to do with anything? It turns out that this woman’s teeth had tartar (there were no dental hygienists around in those years to scrape it off–that’s why they called them the Dark Ages- no, not really) on them. And no one flossed, as far as I know. 

These researchers found that the tartar had a striking blue coloration which turned out to be lapis lazuli, a mineral which was ground to a powder and used in these illuminations.

Well, okay, so what? Well, not only that, but the coloration was unevenly distributed on her teeth, so it’s not like she was inhaling the powder while grinding it or from kissing the Bible at the monastery. There was more of the blue tint on her front teeth than in the back, and this suggests that she was probably using a brush, and licked it to make a fine point of the bristles, and in the process picked up some of the lapis lazuli on her teeth.And this means that she was one of the artists creating these illustrations. 

The only question I have is, why weren’t there any other dyes on her teeth, since other coloured minerals were also used? I don’t have the answer to that question, except maybe this woman specialized in applying this particular colour (like in an assembly line, an innovation supposedly invented by Henry Ford in the early 1900s.) 

Maybe further testing will find other dyes on other skeleton’s teeth in that cemetery. We’ll just have to wait with bated breath for the answer to this question.

In the meantime, floss regularly. And visit your dental hygienist at least twice a year. You don’t want some future archeologist checking out your teeth one day in the far future. I’m sure you have secrets you’d rather no one knew anything about.


1001 Uses For Dental Floss #50- Ancient Weeds Prevented Tooth Decay

By looking at the remains of a prehistoric people living in what is now Sudan, scientists have found bits of a particularly bitter-tasting weed inside the dental calculus (hard deposits) sticking to their teeth. This plant is known to inhibit the growth of Streptoccus mutans, a bacterium which causes tooth decay in humans, but is high in carbohydrates, so it would be a good energy source and would have caused tooth decay if not for its antibacterial properties, although for us moderns, its bitter taste is unlikely to make it a big hit in the toothpaste aisle of your favourite drug store. The cavity rate in the ancients who chewed this plant was surprisingly low (around 1%), while at other locations where this plant wasn’t eaten the rate of tooth decay was much higher – 5%.

So, here’s evidence that it was possible for ancients to reduce their rates of decay by eating the right foods, but unfortunately this wouldn’t work for us – we eat much more sugar and our tolerance for unpalatable food is pretty low. We have to rely on watching our sugar intake, and on preventing decay by brushing and flossing, but if we get a cavity, we have something these ancients didn’t – at least there’s no archeological evidence so far – dentists.

ancient-dental-hygiene-01_81700_990x742 http://t.co/haUO3upSHc

1001 Uses For Dental Floss #43- Archeology, Dental Evidence, and Child Sacrifice

Today’s post is a mixture of history, archeology, religion, conjecture and controversy. Not much to do with floss, but hang in for the surprises.

First, a little history. Carthage was once a city in what is now Tunisia. You may remember Carthage, a city and an empire which clashed with Rome and lost. Hannibal, famous for crossing the Alps into Italy with his elephants, engaged the Romans in war and won most of the battles, except for the last one, which is of course the most important one. That’s why the languages many of us speak are descended from variants of Latin instead of variants of Aramaic, which is what the Carthaginians spoke.

Aramaic happens to be the language spoken in the eastern Mediterranean lands before the Romans and Greeks came along, and was the language used by Jesus. It was spoken by the Phoenicians, who were the close cousins, if not the same crew, as the Carthaginians. They were also known as the Canaanites, who worshipped the God Baal.

So it happens, if you remember any of the Old Testament part of the Bible from your youth, that these Baalists carried out all sorts of atrocities in their religious rites, including child sacrifice, and this practice, and therefore Phoenician/ Canaanite culture (and thus also Carthaginian culture) were abhorred by the Israelites, and later by the Greeks and Romans.

Human sacrifice was vigorously condemned in the Old Testament by the prophet Elijah, who promoted the destruction of the Baalists by the Israelites for this reason, among others.

So, did these peoples really sacrifice children in their temples? Now here the evidence starts to stir up controversy. This all hangs on evidence related to something called the “neonatal line” in baby teeth. What is termed the “neonatal line” is a noticeable change in layers of enamel evenly laid down before birth, something like the rings in a tree. This mechanism is briefly disrupted during a week or more following birth because birth process is so traumatic to the newborn, and this line can be seen when these teeth are viewed by a number of different analytical methods.

Still with me?

In a children’s cemetery recently examined in the ruins of Carthage, young children’s remains included both ones who died shortly after birth, but also many who were the results of miscarriages, because their teeth bore no signs of the neonatal line and so died before birth. It is known that the survival of newborns past their first year or two was only about 50% at best.

What this implies is that these fetuses were buried with reverence in the cemetery and suggests, from the inscriptions on grave markers there, that the other children died a natural death and were not given by their parents to be sacrificed, but their lives rather were highly valued.

Read this as you will, but this could imply that the whole notion of child sacrifice in Canaanite culture could be wrong and written in the Old Testament to justify the destruction of these people by the abhorrence of God for this practice. The evidence could be flimsy or it could be robust, depending on where your sympathies lie, but experts in the field (historians and archeologists) are strongly divided on whether this is real evidence and if it means anything when compared to the historical record that was written by the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans, who were of course the enemies of this people. Historical revisionism by the victor, after all, has been around for a long, long time. But at this point, the verdict seems to hinge on evidence from teeth.

To which I say: I don’t know, but remember to floss.

For both takes on this story, see: