Etruscan Dentures


L0058137 Copy of an Etruscan denture, Europe, 1901-1930

L0058137 – Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

It will be no revelation to find that the image above depicts a denture, a prosthetic device designed to replace missing teeth. It is not immediately clear which cavities would have the pleasure to be filled by this specimens, but my guess would be the top front ones, known in the world of dentistry as the central incisors, as the two teeth are of similar size and shape. But this is only a guess.

It may be surprising, however, to discover that the image above depicts a copy – but an accurate one – of an Etruscan denture dated to the 7th century BC. Two teeth are fixed within a gold band by two fastenings. From the reflection in the photo, we can see quite clearly that both teeth have been shaped, filed down to the same size and to create clean, square edges. The spaces on either side of the two fixed teeth suggest how the device might have been worn, with the gold bands fitted around living teeth. Twenty such devices have been found from Etruria, all with pure gold bands. The purity of the metal lends it a high malleability, enabling the wearer to mould the band in the mouth to secure its position.

Etruscan map

Whilst the exact regions of Etruscan Italy are unclear, it can generally be understood to cover central Italy, the areas of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. The Etruscan Civilisation occupied this area before it was conquered by the Romans, and was contemporary with the Rome’s legendary kings. The twenty dentures were discovered in Etruscan tombs across this region, but mostly concentrated in Southern Etruria, and Tarquinia especially. This has led to conclusions that the practise was localised rather than widespread. Whilst we have literary evidence of dentistry and prosthetic teeth from the Roman period, we unfortunately have no such material from the Etruscan period and can rely only on archaeological finds. The Etruscan language survives predominantly in funerary epigraphs, dedicatory inscriptions, and graffiti. Whilst Roman texts record the different materials used for fake teeth (including bone, ivory, ox-tooth, pine and boxwood), there is no evidence of gold-banded dentures, such as that pictured above in the Roman tradition, and no examples have been found from the later Roman Republic or the Empire. We can therefore conclude fairly confidently that the practice was not continued under Roman control.

The dentures can tell us many things, but they also leave a lot to speculate. The varying shapes and sizes of the extant dentures (as shown in the photograph below) suggest that they were custom made, probably by goldsmiths rather than ‘dentists’. The use of gold suggests that they belonged to wealthy Etruscans, perhaps signifying status. It has been convincingly argued that what we find here is a case of ‘tooth evulsion’, whereby heathy teeth are deliberately removed from the mouth, and – in this case – set into a denture, to be worn. The argument is based on the fact that the Etruscan dentures always feature incisors, which are the last teeth to fall out as a result of disease or bad hygiene. The deliberate removal of teeth gives greater weight to the idea that these dentures might have served as a status symbol, albeit a painful one. Gold-banded fake teeth were better than the real deal. Tooth Evulsion has been documented around the world, but has no reference in any part of ancient Greek or Roman civilisations, again leading us to conclude it was a practise limited to Etruria.

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Etruscan dental pontics (getty images)

Marshall Becker, whose research has thoroughly dominated all academic discussion on this topic, draws these dentures into a discussion of gendered social relations in the Etruscan world. He suggests that we can gauge the gender of the wearers of these dentures by the size of the teeth and the gaps, concluding that they were worn expressly by high-status Etruscan women. Whilst the argument draws interesting conclusions, I am unqualified to judge correctly whether we can use teeth as an accurate marker of gender, but have my doubts.

Whilst these gold-band dentures were not adopted by Roman dental practises, the importance of gold in the teeth was still present . The Laws of the Twelve Tables are supposed to be the earliest attempt to create a code of law in the Roman Republic, and were written up around 450BC. Among these laws is one that states “A person must not add gold (to the funeral pyre). But him whose teeth shall have been fastened together with gold, if a person shall bury or burn him along with that gold, it shall be with impunity.” (X.9) So if you needed gold for the afterlife, you’d better keep it in your teeth!