When You’re Smiling …

Twenty centuries ago, Roman poet and self-styled love expert Ovid wrote that, in order to be sexually attractive, “Women should learn how to hide their blackened teeth.” A difficult trick, but a necessary one in the ancient world because — in an age before spinbrushes, pastes, and flosses, with nothing but the occasional silver pick to remove lettuce (Rome loved its salads, in case you were wondering) — teeth in those days were basically left to their own devices, to do their thing until they got ugly and died. Or you died, possibly from Guinness-record abscesses reaching, as they did in one poor soul excavated from Pompeii, past the sinuses, and into the bone. Ouch!

Enter twenty-first century researchers G. Richard Scott and Simon R. Poulson from the University of Nevada, Reno (a town loaded,  coincidentally, with showgirls who must keep their smiles as buff as their bodies) who may just have discovered a good use for such oogy old teeth: as clues to the diets of yesteryear.

Up until the recent past, medical archaeology required samples of muscle, hair, or fingernails to create and analyze data on old world diet and health — samples which were not always available from thousands, or even hundreds-of-years-old cadavers. So, science turned to bones, which provided much information, but which, by the very nature of the chemical process needed to prepare the material for study, dissolved the bone itself. Not exactly a popular move with anthropology museum directors.

A few things changed on the frontiers of dentistry between ancient Rome and the twenty-first century. But plaque — that’s forever. And really, who needs it? With this in mind, Drs. Scott and Poulson chipped the tartar from teeth in medieval European skulls and fed it into a dandy, 1950’s sci-fi type machine with the really cool name “mass spectrometer”, which broke down the chemical composition of the dental calculus into carbon and nitrogen. So? Well, the presence of nitrogen in the human body is indicative of the amount of animal protein we’ve been consuming. The carbon, the amount of plant protein. After that, it’s just a short skip-and-hop to theories on what we ate back then, and how much of it. What good will this do us? I have no idea, except as a reminder to brush and floss, just like our dentists keep telling us to do, so we don’t look slovenly in a researcher’s lab, say a thousand years from today should we happen to be dragged out for study.

Which brings me to the image you see here, a reproduction of a statuette from the one-thousand-year-old Chateau Montreuil-Bellay in France. Her name is Saint Apollonia, and she was martyred in the year 249 after refusing to renounce her Christian faith before Emperor Philip. Philip’s solution to her intractable behavior was to knock all her teeth out. Whereupon Saint Apollonia leaped into a fire. She is now regarded as the patron saint of dentistry and a healer of dental disease, and is commonly depicted wearing a tooth around her neck, and carrying a pair of dental pliers. The statuette stands 18-inches high,weighs in at about ten pounds, and was hand-carried, by me, all the way from France to California many years ago just to remind myself to take good care of my teeth. And guess what? It worked: I haven’t had a cavity in ages. But then, maybe it was the Crest.