Ancient Romans had Better Teeth than Us


New research has revealed that despite rudimentary dental care, ancient Romans had better teeth than people today.

Scientists used CAT scans to examine the remains of 30 men, women and children who were killed in Pompeii when the city was engulfed by ash and pumice from Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. After months of research, their most startling discovery was the excellent condition of the Romans’ teeth, which the researchers ascribed to a low-sugar, fiber-rich Mediterranean diet.

“The inhabitants of Pompeii ate a lot of fruit and vegetables but very little sugar,” said Elisa Vanacore, a dental expert. “They ate better than we did and have really good teeth. Studying their teeth could reveal a lot more about their lives.”

They were strangers to toothbrushes or toothpaste, but their healthy diet meant that few of the Romans suffered from cavities, the CAT scans showed. Three-dimensional imaging revealed that many victims of the eruption had severe cranial injuries caused by falling masonry and rubble as homes, taverns and public bath houses toppled around them.

“Their diet was balanced and healthy, similar to what we now call the Mediterranean diet,” said Massimo Osanna, the director of the ancient site near Naples. “The research is a big step forward in our understanding of the Roman world. Exceptional findings are emerging about their age, sex, social status and dietary habits.”

Another surprising discovery was that the bones showed deterioration as a result of the high levels of fluoride in the water that supplied Pompeii.

The research project has brought together an expert team of Italian radiologists, archaeologists, orthodontists and anthropologists. It is not only humans that they studied – there was also a dog and a wild boar, both trapped in the conflagration that devastated Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum when Vesuvius erupted.

When waves of blisteringly hot ash fell over Pompeii, many people suffocated and were buried. The ash gradually hardened into pumice, encasing their bodies. Over time the soft tissue of the bodies rotted away, leaving cavities containing just their skeletons. Archaeologists in the 19th century pioneered the technique of pouring plaster into the cavities. Once the plaster hardened, the archaeologists chipped away at the surrounding pumice to extract detailed casts of the victims, many of them contorted in the moments before death.

Experts plan to examine a total of 86 plaster cast bodies. The little boy aged around four was found in a villa dubbed the House of the Golden Bracelet with the ossified remains of his parents. Some of the remains are too unwieldy to fit into the CAT machine, including that of a woman in a sitting position who is holding a toddler on her lap, one of the most poignant casts.

Pompeii was encased in hardened ash for centuries before excavations began in 1748. Mt. Vesuvius had been spouting smoke and ash for days before it finally erupted and the majority of the population of 20,000 are thought to have fled in safety. But around 2,000 stayed behind and were killed when ash and toxic fumes engulfed the city.

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