dental filling in ancient tooth
September 20, 2012

Ancient Tooth Was Filled With Beeswax

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The application of new technology to existing materials is happening across every industry, and the fields of archeology and paleontology are producing some revolutionary results with these exciting advances.

Another example of just such a development was the revealing of ancient dental work in a 6,500-year-old jawbone that was found in Slovenia over 100 years ago, according to a report of the discovery in the journal PLoS One this week.

"The jawbone remained in the museum for 101 years without anybody noticing anything strange,” said study co-author Claudio Tuniz of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.

According to the report, the discovery marks the first known evidence of “therapeutic-palliative dental filling,” which was made using beeswax. It appears to have been made just before or after the patient´s death.

Evidence of ancient dentistry is extremely rare. The oldest known specimens, which involved the drilling of cavities, were found in southwest Asia and have been dated between 7,500 and 9,500 years old. It was assumed that these cavities were filled, but until now, evidence of these fillings had yet to be found.

Using synchrotron radiation computed micro-tomography (micro-CT) and other scanning technologies, the research team was able to identify the dental fissure that likely plagued this patient. They were also able to spot the beeswax filling used in treatment.

“If the filling was done when the person was still alive, the intervention was likely aimed to relieve tooth sensitivity derived from either exposed dentine and/or the pain resulting from chewing on a cracked tooth,” the report said.

The beeswax was then analyzed using a large ion accelerator that identified the carbon isotopes in the wax, which were then used to accurately date the specimen. X-ray machines were also used to render a digital 3-D model of the tooth and jawbone.

Despite the in-depth analysis and subsequent bounty of information, the archeologists and medical professors were unable to determine if the filling was put in place pre- or post-mortem. In their report, the scientists speculated that if it was done while the patient was still alive – it was likely performed to reduce pain and sensitivity from the vertical crack in multiple layers of the tooth.

Although the timing of the filling was unable to be determined, a dental analysis of the tooth showed that the fractures occurred while the individual was still alive. According to the report, signs of wear on the tooth “indicate that the tooth was subjected to compressive external stresses, which could have also originated the vertical fracture. Such pronounced dental wear is common in Neolithic remains, often reflecting diet and extramasticatory use of teeth.”

According to the scientists, the use of beeswax makes sense as previous studies have shown that people of the time used it as a binding agent. The chemical composition of beeswax, with its long-chain hydrocarbons, also means that it is resistant to degradation and wear. Previous archeological finds have shown that bee-derived products of the same age were used for artistic, medical and technological purposes.