It appears that ancient Egypt did more than just worry about their hair and clothes… they also had a serious concern about their teeth! Archaeologists working at the site of ancient Saqqara discovered a tomb that was dedicated to three royal dentists over 4,200 years ago.
The dentists’ tombs are constructed out of limestone and mud brick, and each have a series of elaborately carved hieroglyphs and paintings. The tomb of the chief dentist has an inscription actually identifying his name – “Iy Mry” – as well as images depicting himself and his family carrying out ritual sacrifices, playing games together, and making offerings to the dead. A protective curse inscription above the tomb’s entrance reads: “Anyone who enters my tomb will be eaten by a crocodile and a snake.”
The tombs were identifiable as those of dentists’ due to the use of two hieroglyphs above the names of all three men, showing an eye above a tusk. The location of their burial next to the Step Pyramid would have been a place of honor for them, suggesting their practice was given a great deal of respect by the ancient Pharaohs.
The two other dentists, buried in separate tombs next to the chief dentist, also have their names spelled out in hieroglyphs: Kem Msw and Sekhem Ka. They must have all worked together during their lifetimes, which would explain why all three tombs were so close to one another.
According to ancient Egyptian medical papyri, there were actually two classes of dentists in ancient Egypt, the iryw-ibew – literally, “dentists” – which was the lower class of dentists, while the high-class dentists were known as the ir-iryw-ibew, which translates as “great of those who are concerned with teeth”. It is possible that the lower class dentists functioned much like dental hygienists in modern dentistry – there are even surviving descriptions of how to make ancient fillings and cure bad breath!
One ancient Egyptian ‘breath sweetener’ recipe reads as follows:
“Take frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, bark and other fragrant plants, boil with honey and shape into pellets.”
…sounds like the ancient Egyptians had their own Tic-Tacs…
Want to read more?
Tomorrow: World’s oldest bugs (yes they are still icky)