4,000-Year-Old Teeth of Egyptian Papyrus Maker Speak of Hard Work and Chronic Pain
Mendes was once the capital of Ancient Egypt and it was in the necropolis here in the 1970s that archaeologists discovered the remains of a very special, but common woman, who lived around 2181-2055 BC.
In Arthur Conan Doyal’s The Adventure of the Cooper Beeches , Sherlock says to Watson: ”Pshaw, my dear fellow, what do the public, the great unobservant public, who could hardly tell a weaver by his tooth or a compositor by his left thumb, care about the finer shades of analysis and deduction! Well, “tell a weaver by his tooth” is exactly what a team of historical detectives have just done in Egypt.
A research team from the University of Alberta have published new research in Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People revealing fascinating data about, not the Pharaohs and elite classes this time, but of the day-to-day roles of people in Ancient Egypt. And the clues were not derived from a golden mask or the paintings from a treasure laden tomb, but from the teeth of an ordinary citizen, who lived to over 50 years old.
Two “patterns of wear” found on 16 of a woman’s 24 teeth were not consistent with wear and tear from eating, and suggested to archaeologists that this woman used her teeth for another task. Further investigations led the team to conclude that she was most probably a craftswoman who made papyrus.
This revelation, according an article in Science Direct , “surprised” the researchers because according to data recovered from tomb paintings and recovered texts, scholars currently believe that women could only partake in “seven professions.” But this 4000-year-old Egyptian woman’s teeth show that women’s lives may have been “more varied than some records suggest”.
According to a Science Alert article, those seven jobs were thought to be “priestesses in temples dedicated to goddesses (for high status and well-connected women); as singers, musicians, and dancers (for women with skills and talent); as mourners; as weavers of cloth in the workshops of the aristocracy; and as midwives."
The pattern of wear observed on the woman’s teeth. (Lovell & Palichuk, Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People, 2019)
The Legacy of An Ancient Craftswoman
Adding to what was at that time, something of a mystery, the woman’s remains were discovered in a wooden coffin lined with reeds containing an “alabaster vessels, a bronze mirror, cosmetics and gold leaf.”
The new paper details how scientists used scanning techniques like electron microscopy and micrography to examine the teeth, finding that “her two central maxillary incisors had severe wear in a wedge-shape.”
What is more, 14 teeth had flat abrasions, and this is why this woman is considered to be ‘special’. Of the 1,000 plus teeth recovered from about 100 skeletons at the Mendes necropolis, “only hers showed these unusual wear patterns” say the scientists.
Attempting to account for the “wedge-shaped wearing”, the researchers believe these are consistent with the type of wear observed on the teeth from other ancient cultures around the world in which craftspeople split, pulp and grind raw plant materials using their mouths. The paper suggests the woman was stripping “ Cyperus papyrus”, a type of sedge plant “that grew abundantly in the delta".
The researchers add that this particular papyrus stalk was used for “firewood, to make boxes and baskets for storage and transport of goods, and to make sandals, curtains, and floor mats.”
Papyrus sandals made for a child. 18 th dynasty, Egypt ( CC by SA 3.0 )
In Ancient Egypt, there was a high incidence of periodontal disease and tooth loss caused by a build-up of plaque which, left unbrushed, turns to calculus, which in turn plays havoc with one’s dental health.
Stripping the outer rind from papyrus, which contains silica phytoliths, accounts for ‘some of’ the abrasion and the scientists think that appearance of horizontal wear “on the crown, CEJ, and root” suggest the craftsperson probably brushed her teeth.
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Showing academic caution, the researchers add that the abrasion might have been caused by the regular application of a plant-based analgesic to soothe swollen and tired gums… and the researchers say "chronic dental pain may have plagued this woman if she persistently used her teeth in task activities.”
Her attempts to maintain her oral vitality would have been nothing less than a matter of life and death. In Ancient Egypt, even a tiny cavity would often mean a life filled with pain, and in extreme cases, result in infection and subsequent death.
Top image: Ancient human skeleton missing teeth ( gerasimov174 / Adobe Stock )
By Ashley Cowie