The earliest known dental prosthesis from ancient Rome may not have been very functional, but it gave its wealthy wearer a million dollar smile.
The gleaming grin resulted from multi-karat gold wire, which was used to string together "artificial teeth," according to the team of Italian researchers who analyzed the ancient bridgework.
They found the object, which dates from the 1st to the 2nd century A.D., in the mouth of an unidentified woman who was buried in an elaborate mausoleum within a Roman necropolis.
"At the moment, this dental prosthesis is the only archaeological remain that corresponds to the literary descriptions (concerning dentistry) of the Roman Age," lead scientist Simona Minozzi told Discovery News.
Minozzi, an anthropologist at the University of Pisa, and her team quoted from the writings of 1st century Roman satirist Martial.
Martial wrote, "Lucania has white teeth, Thais brown. How comes it? One has false teeth, one her own. And you, Galla, lay aside your teeth at night just as you do your silken dress."
Minozzi believes the unidentified Roman's bridgework was made from the woman's own teeth that probably fell out due to periodontal disease. Gold wire bound the teeth together, with some teeth possessing drill holes to strengthen the wire bond. More gold wire secured the replaced tooth to side teeth that remained in her jaw.
The discovery is outlined in the current issue of The American Journal of Medicine.
"I think that the dentists used gold because it is a metal that is compatible with biological tissue and it is simple to work with," Minozzi said, adding that gold is still used in dentistry today.
All of the woman's teeth showed signs of rubbing, suggesting she had used an abrasive dental powder.
Writings from the ancient Greeks refer to dental concoctions made out of sea salt, ground oyster shells and other gritty materials that were flavored with refreshing herbs and oils, not unlike some modern toothpastes.
Minozzi asked her own dentist about the rub marks, and he said these are even common today, when people brush their teeth "too intensely."
Scott Swank, curator of the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, which is associated with the Smithsonian, told Discovery News that the museum's collection houses a detailed model of similar bridgework from Egypt. It dates to 2,500 B.C.
"It too consists of teeth that are held together with gold wires," Swank explained, but said it's possible the ancient Egyptians only wore such devices after death. Their spiritual beliefs held that the "body must be whole for the afterlife," teeth and all.
Swank also mentioned an early Etruscan piece of bridgework, dating to 1,000 B.C. It is similar to the Egyptian and Roman finds, except with thicker gold banding.
"The gold bands would have been very noticeable to onlookers," he said. "Royalty, rulers and other important people with access to a lot of cash probably would have worn these."
Shannon O'Dell, curator of the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry at the University of Michigan, echoed that belief.
"All of these devices were more for looks than anything else," she told Discovery News. "You could not have bit down on any kind of hard food with them."
O'Dell added, "High-status individuals likely wore them for ceremonies to keep up appearances."
... a photo of the device accompanies the original article ... (is this a new discovery?)