Dental studies of ancient Egypt mummies

May 6, 2011

Dental studies of ancient Egypt mummies
Modern investigations employ virtually nondestructive techniques to study disease in mummies. Here, members of the Manchester Mummy Project use an endoscope to take tissue samples from the mouth of a mummy. (Courtesy The Manchester Museum, University of Manchester) 
Many dental studies have been carried out on mummies, both as specialized surveys and as part of multidisciplinary projects. Since both dry skulls and mummified heads (separated or attached to the body) are available for study,researchers have been able to use a combination of investigative techniques.
Scientists can undertake firsthand examinations of collections of dry skulls in museums and elsewhere, and these have become the basis for studying ancient Egyptian dentitions.
They provide the researcher with direct experience of many pathological and non pathological abnormalities, and this information can be used to interpret the radiographs that are taken of mummified and wrapped heads. Although specialized equipment—such as the orthopanto mograph unit, which supplies a panoramic view of all the teeth and their supporting structures—can be employed for this purpose, radiology has its limitations because details of the dentitions are frequently obscured by hard facial tissue and the funerary mask and artifacts placed over the head.

There have been, nevertheless, opportunities to examine large numbers of mummies, and researchers have been able to determine dental disease and pathology. This has enhanced our understanding of general dental health and diet in ancient Egypt. Major studies undertaken in Egypt by University of Michigan expeditions have examined the dentitions of the Old Kingdom nobles at Giza, the New Kingdom priests and nobles at Thebes, and the royal mummies in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. Other investigations have focused on the oral health and disease of modern Egyptians and have provided comparative material for studies on ancient remains. There have also been extensive investigations of dry skulls and wrapped heads in museums around the world, and scientists have explored such topics as teeth as an age-deter- mining tool, the ancient Egyptian diet, and the history of dental health in ancient Egypt.

Studies have generally indicated that in the pharaonic period, people did not suffer greatly from caries (tooth decay), although incidence increased in the Greco-Roman Period, probably as the result of dietary changes.
The most common problem for Egyptians in pharaonic times was instead attrition of the cusps (the wearing down of biting surfaces of the teeth).
Microscopic analysis of samples of bread from the tombs has revealed many impurities, including sand, fragments of the querns (hand mills) used to grind the flour, and debris from storehouses. Bread was the staple element of the Egyptian diet; therefore, most people suffered from dental attrition as the result of these gritty fragments contained in the bread.

Some individuals also must have suffered considerable pain. When the mummy of a woman named Djedmaatesankh, in the Royal Ontario Museum collection, was CAT-scanned in 1994, it was revealed that at the time of death she had suffered from an enormous cyst in the bone of her upper left jaw. Attrition of the teeth often resulted in exposure of the tooth pulp; this can then easily become infected and develop into a type of septic cyst, which in turn can cause death. Scientists have speculated whether there was a specialized dental profession in ancient Egypt that could undertake sophisticated dental procedures, but problems such as the one presented by this woman suggest that dental expertise was minimal.


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