Treatment methods for oral and dental ailments in Ancient Egypt
Like us, the ancient Egyptians weren’t spared from oral ailments. Their diet, which was full of fibre and coarse, often uncooked, vegetables, in combination with a dental hygiene that possibly wasn’t up to our standards, caused various diseases such as attrition, caries and periodontitis. But the Egyptians were inventive, and not unversed in medical practices: they had devised many treatments for the various affections that bothered them, both chirurgical and medicinal in nature.
Molars suffering from attrition
Attrition was by far the most common affection in ancient Egypt. Caused by the coarse diet (which may also have lacked necessary minerals and vitamins) and the presence of sand, husks, and sometimes even straw, in their bread, many Egyptians suffered from this condition. The skulls and jaws found in burial shafts and tombs almost all show attrition to some degree. This may not sound like a very serious disease, but attrition, when left unchecked, can be a stepping stone to much more severe issues. It can lead to abscesses, inflammation of the gums and jawbone, and tooth loss.
Despite a diet free of refined sugar, caries was still fairly well represented amongst Egypt’s pearly whites. Interestingly enough, this disease seemed to have been much more common among the elite than it was among lower classes. This may be attributed to the higher sugar content in the diet of higher class Egyptians.
Other conditions, most of them attested in medical papyri such as papyrus Ebers, were dental abscesses (“purulency in the gums”), receding gums (“a tooth which gnaws against an opening in the flesh”), loose teeth, ulcerative stomatitis (“eating ulcer on the gums”), periodontitis (“blood-eating”), alveolar diseases, dental sepsis and calculus.
Lower jaw with traces of a periodontal abscess (the small hole in the bone)
Cures, treatments and dentists
So what did the ancient Egyptians do about this? Dental conditions aren’t to be taken lightly: they can very well prove lethal if they remain untreated. There’s some discussion on whether or not the profession of dentist existed in Pharaonic Egypt, mostly because of the seeming lack of actual surgery to cure these affections. To some extent, physicians in Egypt relied on spells and other magic for their treatments, but medicinal therapy was just as big a part of this. The papyri Ebers, Hearst and Berlin give us quite some recipes which could very well have made a difference by alleviating the pain or even inhibiting inflammation. If we define the term dentist as one who knows and attempts to cure diseases of the mouth, then there certainly have been dentists in Pharaonic times.
The papyrus Ebers has eleven recipes which pertain to oral issues. Four of these are remedies for loose teeth: the tooth in question is either ‘packed’ or ‘filled’ (the translation and therefore our interpretation is a little ambiguous) with a mixture that is akin to a modern day composite filling: a filler agent (ground barley) is mixed with a liquid matrix (honey) and an antiseptic agent (yellow ochre). This is either used as an actual filling, or as a splint to keep the tooth in place.
Egyptians also had various mouthwashes and mixtures that had to be chewed and then spit out, meant to combat gum disease. Some of these have more active ingredients than the others, and they certainly seem to have at least provided the patient with some manner of pain relief. These recipes have ingredients such as sweet beer, creeping cinquefoil, bran and celery in different compositions. Some of the mouthwashes were for the specific purpose of maintaining a healthy mouth and teeth.
But not everything is purely medicinal in Egyptian medicine. The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus gives us treatments that are, as the title suggests, much more surgical in nature. One case handles the dislocation of a jaw, and the treatment for this hasn’t changed in over five thousand years. Some of the discovered jaws and skulls have evidence of additional treatment next to the application of medicine. It’s not altogether impossible that Egyptian dentists knew how to drain an abscess, or cut away cankered gums.
Pharaonic physicians were no strangers to reconstruction works: there have been three instances of a dental bridge: one or more lost teeth reattached by means of a gold or silver wire to the surrounding teeth. However, it’s a bit unclear whether these works were performed during the life of the patient or after death – to tidy them up, as it were, before their burial.
All in all, the ancient Egyptians were very attached to their pearly whites, and took great care to treat the diseases they knew as best as they could. They were skilled in medicine and surgery, relying on actual treatment just as much, or perhaps even more, as they did on magic spells and prayers to the Gods.
Hesy-re, “Head of Dentists” - A Third Dynasty physician