A team of scientists from the University of Pisa in Italy made an unusual discovery in an ancient family tomb in Lucca – a set of dentures that was constructed using teeth from several deceased people. The prosthesis date back to between the 14th and early 17th century, but if confirmed to be from the 14th century, they will be one of the oldest known sets in Europe.
The Local reports that the set of false teeth was found at the chapel of San Francesco in a tomb belonging to the Guinigis, a powerful family of bankers and traders who governed the city of Lucca from 1392 until 1429. Members of the Franciscan order were present at the site since 1228, but the current church dates from the 14th-century.
The convent of San Francesco in Lucca, Italy
The researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal of Clinical Implant Dentistry and Related Research that the dentures are composed of five teeth, canines and incisors, which came from different individuals. They are linked together by a strip of metal composed mostly of gold, along with silver and copper, the latter metal causing the green staining on the teeth.
Two small golden pins were inserted into each tooth crossing the root and fixing the teeth to the gold strip. The prosthesis would have stuck to the wearer’s lower gum. An analysis of the calculus on the dentures indicates that the dentures had been worn for a long period.
The set of dentures discovered in Italy. Credit: University of Pisa
Dentistry, including drilling and filling, has been practiced for at least 9,000 years, while the first attempt at connecting human teeth together to be used as false teeth can be traced back to the Egyptians as far back as 3,500 years. In Italy, the Etruscans and Romans began making sets of false teeth around the 7th century BC.
There are three known instances of dental bridges found in Egypt in which one or more lost teeth were reattached by means of a gold or silver wire to the surrounding teeth. In some cases, a bridge was made using donor 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 before their burial.
Incredible dental work found on an ancient mummy. The two centre teeth are donor teeth.
In the 1400s, dentures seemed to take more of the modernised shape that we see today. These dentures were still made from carved animal bone or ivory, but some were now made from human teeth. Grave robbers often used to steel the teeth from recently deceased people and sell them to dentists, and the poor used to make money by having their teeth extracted and selling them. The finished denture would not be very aesthetically pleasing or very stable in the mouth, and was often tied to the patients remaining teeth. Another problem that occurred with these dentures is that they tended not to last long and began to rot over time. The first porcelain dentures did not arrive until the 18th century.
Writing in their paper on the finding, the researchers explain: “’This dental prosthesis provides a unique finding of technologically advanced dentistry in this period… during the Early Modern Age, some authors described gold band technology for the replacement of missing teeth. Nevertheless, no direct evidences of these devices have been brought to light up so far.”
One member of the team, Dr Simona Minozzi, told The Local: “The dentures found in the tomb are the first example of dentures from this historical period, and as such are a valuable addition to the history of dentistry.”