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Going to the dentist today is like spending the day at the spa, at least compared to dentistry thousands of years ago. While you walk into an office for a routine check-up and patiently wait to the sound of calming music and stacks of magazines, Egyptians were cringing in pain with massive toothaches and a stomach full of anticipation and dread. Dental chairs are comfortable with adjustable settings, a padded head rest, and many times you can even watch TV as your teeth get worked on pain-free. The same cannot be said for Egyptians, ancient Greeks, or Etruscans. Visiting a doctor back then was out of necessity, not something you did every six months for preventative care. A cavity would often mean a life filled with pain, and in extreme cases even death. While the procedures of pulling teeth and drilling out cavities have improved immensely, it is quite remarkable to think what was accomplished with so little knowledge and lack of tools.
Egyptians were very comfortable with and knowledgeable about the human body. Mummifying bodies required them to drain the blood and extract the organs leading to a basic understanding of the human anatomy. Doctors wrote up manuals on how to perform surgical procedures, cure bites and stings, and mend bones. It is in one of these manuals that the first evidence of dentistry is found; as old as when some of the first pyramids were built. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, written sometime before 3000 B.C. gives instructions on how to heal and treat wounds in the mouth. Although there were detailed instructions about curing mouth problems, the evidence and writings within this time lead people to believe that the actual teeth were still considered untreatable. Minor dental work was performed, and slowly over time this would grow to be more complex procedures. The earliest signs of dental surgery were between 3000 and 2500 B.C. and usually involved drilling out cavities or pulling teeth. It might be hard to imagine having your teeth drilled into without the comfort of shots and happy gas, but Egyptians by 1550 B.C had prescriptions for dental pain and injuries. Through all these years, there has never been any evidence in mummies or writings that mechanical or false teeth were ever used. It has stumped researches as they struggle to believe that such intelligent and lavish people didn’t have artificial teeth in place of missing front teeth.
Etruscan people were the first to take basic work in the mouth to a more artistic level. Etruscan’s were incredibly intelligent people who were always striving to increase their knowledge and improve their image. Luxury was important to them, and they continued to test boundaries in the medical field. The courage to travel across sea to trade with other civilizations is proof of their industrious and courageous personalities. Using the knowledge of dentistry they learned from travel, they began to experiment with filling gold teeth. In one preserved mouth, gold bands were wrapped around the teeth and cemented by soldering with heat. Human and animal teeth were used as artificial teeth and held in place by gold bands. Performed around 700 B.C this is the first time in history a form of prosthetics was ever used in the mouth, and would be the only use for many years.
While exploring and researching mummies, archeologists have learned a mouthful of information on ancient dentistry. One mummy was found with many devastating dental problems. It is hard to imagine that cavities could kill you, but this mummy died from a basic sinus infection caused from a life of painful cavities. This mummy was a young man somewhere in his twenties. Greek dentists struggled to stop and cure his cavities. Linen soaked in medicine was packed in the holes in his teeth in an attempt to relieve the pain. Cloth in the tooth prevented food from entering and festering in the area. Greeks prided themselves in their strength and ability to handle pain. So, when cavities were found in the teeth, Greeks would often deal with the pain rather than have the tooth pulled. Losing a tooth would be a great loss and the pain was a small price to pay.
Dentistry has evolved over time from a rather barbaric practice to a technologically advanced industry. Preventative maintenance such as teeth cleanings help people avoid some of the serious problems that people of the past were faced with when it came to teeth.
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- Ancient Dentistry in China
- Medicine in the Ancient World
- Fixing Ancient Toothaches
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