Ancient Dental Tartar: A New Avenue of Inquiry for Archeology

This almost makes me want to stop flossing my teeth.

A few days ago I wrote a post that described the conclusions archeologists were able to draw from ancient egg shells. I love that there continue to be new avenues of inquiry for archeological studies. It makes me very excited for the future. Today I want to talk about another path to enlightenment that has recently come about.

When an archaeologist examines teeth, up to this point they’ve mostly been focused on the teeth themselves. They can determine a person’s diet and place of origin from their teeth and also what they’ve been chewing based on the damage. But for a long time, the dental tartar on the teeth has been overlooked as a source of information. Not any longer.

I just read an article entitled, โ€œWhy a Medieval Woman Had Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Her Teethโ€. It was quite enlightening. I highly recommend this quick read.

It seems that an archeologist was studying the skull of a woman who had been buried in a monastery in Germany somewhere between the years 997 and 1162. Upon closer inspection, she discovered that a bit of her dental tartar was a beautiful, unexplainable, blue color. She decided to take a sample for analysis.

When the results came back, it turned out to be a pigment called ultramarine, which is made from ground up lapis lazuli, which can only be obtained from Afghanistan, 4000 miles away. Because of that, this particular color was very precious and rare. It was only used by the best scribes who were making illuminated manuscripts. This pigment wasn’t wasted on anyone other than the most talented among them.

So, from a little piece of tartar, we learned that this woman must have been using her mouth to draw paintbrushes to a point, and was either a scribe or a scribeโ€™s assistant, and someone who was highly trusted and obviously quite talented. That’s very impressive for a woman in the medieval era. It also helps reinforce the fact that not only monks were illuminating manuscripts at the time. That we could glean this information from something so tiny is fascinating.

Many things can be preserved in dental tartar. Fibers, metals, and dyes, for example. Archeologists may be able to determine a personโ€™s occupation or lifestyle from the study of these tiny hardened bits of dental neglect. It almost makes me want to stop flossing my teeth for the sake of future historians.


The ingredients for this blue color most likely traveled 4000 miles down the silk road, and was therefore very expensive.

Hey! Look what I wrote!


Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

10 thoughts on “Ancient Dental Tartar: A New Avenue of Inquiry for Archeology”

  1. Hygienist: “I’m going to take the tartar off your teeth…”
    Me: “So that’s what tartar sauce is made out of!”
    Hygienist: “Yes, and we have big piles of it in the back!”
    And she was my favorite.

  2. And here I am thinking you only develop dental tartar from eating steak tartare and cream of tartar. ๐Ÿ™‚ Wonder if they use this in criminal investigations. Jeffrey Dahmer’s tartar would have been carrying the gruesome evidence of his diet.

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