Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Weekly Websites - Dentists

I have a complete terror of dentists. Today I am feeling particularly sorry for myself because I have to have a molar rebuilt. As I haven't been to a dentist for nearly six years, I do consider myself to be lucky not to need more treatment. As my dentist is a very nice man equipped with all the best that 21st century science can provide, I consider myself awfully lucky not to have been born in a previous era. My Weekly Websites posts tend to be a more or less random selection of sites that I have visited during the previous week, but this week the theme is ancient Egyptian dentistry, the thought of which makes me go cold all over. The image is one of the many scans of Nesperennub.

The dentist in ancient Egypt
Egyptology Online (Astra Corporation)

Within dentistry there were two classes, the lower being "iryw-ibew" meaning "dentist", whilst the elite were referred to as the "ir-iryw-ibew" meaning either "great of those who are concerned with teeth" or "great of dentists".

Dental specialists practiced their art within the confines of the royal court, whilst the ordinary common man had to rely on the "swnw" (the basic "doctor of the people") for their dental treatment.

Pharaonic Egypt (André Dollinger)

As their diet included much abrasive material (sand and small stone particles from grinding the corn) the teeth of elderly ancient Egyptians were often in a very poor state.

Caries and the destruction of the enamel caused the loss of teeth at an early age and often killed as well. Mutnodjmed, pharaoh Horemheb's second wife and sister of Nefertiti, had lost all her teeth when she died in her forties. Djedmaatesankh, a Theban musician who lived around 850 BCE suffered from 13 abscesses, extensive dental disease and a huge infected cyst, which probably killed her aged about 35.

On the other hand, if there was no abrasion due to lucky circumstances, a person of the people would have a minimal incidence of caries and thus a perfect set of teeth, thanks to the paucity of sugar in the diet of the ancient Egyptians. The well-to-do, whose food was more refined, seem to have suffered more from caries than the poor.

Oldest known recipe for toothpaste
The Telegraph

The world's oldest-known formula for toothpaste, used more than 1,500 years before Colgate began marketing the first commercial brand in 1873, has been discovered on a piece of dusty papyrus in the basement of a Viennese museum.

In faded black ink made of soot and gum arabic mixed with water, an ancient Egyptian scribe has carefully described what he calls a "powder for white and perfect teeth".

According to the document, written in the fourth century AD, the ingredients needed for the perfect smile are one drachma of rock salt - a measure equal to one hundredth of an ounce - two drachmas of mint, one drachma of dried iris flower and 20 grains of pepper, all of them crushed and mixed together.

The result is a pungent paste which one Austrian dentist who tried it said made his gums bleed but was a "big improvement" on some toothpaste formulae used as recently as a century ago.

Dental Art
Phoenician Dentistry

Fascinating article, which touches on Egyptian dentistry but has a much wider geographical brief - the illustrations are excellent.

Judging from existing archaeological evidence the dentistry of antiquity can be divided into three groups. Group I would seem to consist of the therapeutic or purely medical methods of combatting dental affections. Group II would seem to combine mechanical means of treatment with the earlier and purely medical treatments of Group I. This mechanical method characteristic of Group II will be called for convenience retentive prosthesis, or that type of dental art which has for its object the retaining of natural dental organs when the ravages of disease would otherwise have caused their loss. Group III is the highest stage of development reached in ancient dentistry: a definite improvement over Groups I and II, since it introduces true dental prosthesis, that is, the art of applying artificial substitutes for lost dental organs.

It is agreed that the oldest of those civilizations that knew something of dentistry was Egypt. The earliest indication of any such knowledge, in Egypt is found in the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, interpreted by Dr. Breasted, the Director of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, and by him. It is dated in the 17th century B.C., even if the original author's first manuscript was produced at least a thousand years earlier, between 2500 and 3000 B.C.1 It contains detailed directions for the treatment of wounds about the mouth, but no mention is made of restoring lost teeth resulting from these or similar injuries. The hard tissues of the mouth were in general considered untreatable, if we are to judge from a case report from the above Papyrus in which a fracture of the mandible is described. In closing his discussion this ancient Egyptian surgeon says: "One having a fracture of the mandible over which a wound has been inflicted and he has fever from it, it is an ailment not to be treated."2 The surgery mentioned in this papyrus was most likely the war-time surgery of a physician who was following an army. In times of peace, however, it is reasonable to believe that many minor dental ills were treated.

In a mandible of an Egyptian from the Old Kingdom (3000-2500 B.C.) described by Hootin,3 we have evidence of minor oral surgery, and in a later papyrus dating, it is believed, from 1550 B.C.,4 we find many prescriptions for dental maladies, but in all the ancient Egyptian medical and dental writings no mention is made of mechanical dental appliances.

Discovery of tombs of the royal dentists at Saqqara
(with a video)

The arrest of tomb robbers led archaeologists to the graves of three royal dentists, protected by a curse and hidden in the desert sands for thousands of years in the shadow of Egypt's most ancient pyramid, officials announced Sunday.

The thieves launched their own dig one summer night two months ago but were apprehended, Zahi Hawass, chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told reporters.

That led archaeologists to the three tombs, one of which included an inscription warning that anyone who violated the sanctity of the grave would be eaten by a crocodile and a snake, Hawass said.

Dentistry and medicine at the Sakakini Palace museum in Cairo

Al Ahram Weekly (Jill Kamil)

As usual, Jill Kamil provides an excellent summary of her topic - this time on the subject of ancient Egyptian medicine, for which a new museum was being built at that time.

We know from mummified bodies that dental surgery was practised from early times; some have teeth extracted, and an Old Kingdom mummy of a man shows two holes beneath a molar of the lower jaw, apparently drilled for draining an abscess. The discovery in a grave at Giza of a body with several teeth wired together suggests that dental treatment was already well advanced in the Old Kingdom. Sesa's tomb at Saqqara (known as the "doctor's tomb") shows the manipulation of joints, while the "physician's tomb", that of Ankhmahor (also at Saqqara), shows an operation on a man's toe and the circumcision of a youth. Ebeid points out that this was practised on boys between six and 12 years old, and adds: "all criteria indicate that female circumcision was never practiced in ancient Egypt."

I don't know what happened about the plan to convert the Sakakini Palace into a museum of medicine, but the building itself looks like terrific fun.

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