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, “Why a Medieval Woman Had Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Her Teeth”. 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 scribe’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 person’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!

An Environmental Plea to Dentists Everywhere

I don’t want your samples!

I visit my dentist several times a year, and each time, some member of his staff insists that I leave with a plastic bag which contains a plastic toothbrush in its plastic packaging, along with a plastic container of floss and a toothpaste sample. They simply will not take no for an answer.

Here’s the thing. I use a Sonicare toothbrush, and my dentist knows this, so I have no need for these toothbrushes. And I now have enough toothpaste samples in my linen closet to last the rest of my natural life. Okay, yeah, the floss I can use. But the rest? A heaping helping of plastic that the planet could do without.

I try to mitigate this. Recently my husband and I donated a gigantic pile of toothbrushes to a shelter, and will also probably do the same thing with 90 percent of the toothpaste samples eventually. But the product manufacturers could just as easily do this themselves and produce the same amount of good will.

Given the number of dentists in the world who give out samples, I have no doubt that somewhere, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is an island of dental samples the size of the state of Vermont. And it’s all so unnecessary! Seriously, I’ve lost sleep over this. So here’s my plea to dentists everywhere:

  • Don’t have your hygienists force samples upon your patients that they don’t want or need.

  • If you insist on giving out said samples, do so in a paper bag, at the very least.

  • Even better: have your samples on display in the waiting room, and urge your patients to help themselves to what they need.

  • Prevail upon your dental product manufacturers to reduce their plastic packaging.

Please spread the word about this. It’s not a difficult change to make, but it would make such a difference.

Dental samples

A big thanks to StoryCorps for inspiring this blog and my first book.


The Dental Arts

I am fascinated with dental appliances and their fabrication.

I may be a bridgetender, but like an onion, I have many layers. I also have a degree in Dental Laboratory Technology and Management. I am fascinated with dental appliances and their fabrication. I graduated with honors. I had big dreams.

Not that those dreams went anywhere. After applying to 200 different labs with no viable offers, and after seeing that dental appliance technology is outpacing the little mom and pop labs that I hoped to be a part of, and after having a wrist surgery that would have made it extremely painful to do the fine motor movements required on a day to day basis, I wised up and went back to bridgetending.

But the fascination remains. So when I needed a crown replaced, I was delighted to see it’s entire design and creation chairside. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days when you had to get a gloopy, bad-tasting mold taken of your teeth, then come back weeks later to have a crown fitted that had been fabricated in an offsite lab.

Instead, they popped off my old crown, and took photographs of my teeth from every possible angle, and then, voila! A three-dimensional image of my teeth appeared on the computer screen. It was fascinating.

From there, Mary, the technologist, created a crown for me on screen. Make no mistake, this was no flimsy endeavor. This takes skill in both science and art. She has to have knowledge of oral anatomy and how various teeth interact with one another. And she also must create a final product that will not only be functional but also aesthetically pleasing. That’s an admirable talent.

I watched her create this tooth and enjoyed imagining her thought process. It was like digital sculpting. Leonardo da Vinci would have been intrigued. And proud.

She consulted with my dentist (a big shout out to Dr. Steven Lockett in Renton, Washington, and his entire amazing staff!) and did a few tweaks based on his suggestions, and then sent the data off to the machine for fabrication. I wish I could have seen that. I know that the machine carves the crown out of little blocks of some mysterious substance that is probably trademarked by the company that created CEREC, the CAD/CAM (computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing) system that my dentist uses.

I could be wrong, but I think of it kind of like 3d printing in reverse. Instead of creating things from a bead-like substance, this machine carves it down from a cube. I mean, seriously, how cool is that?

In no time flat, my crown was hot off the presses, so to speak, and ready to go into my mouth. In it went, and off I went. Just another thing checked off my to-do list. And yet, when I think of the science and artistry that went into the whole endeavor, I still am filled with awe.

By the way, one of my favorite blog posts is the one I wrote entitled Cool Stuff You Never Knew about your Teeth.  Check it out! If you don’t learn at least one thing from it, I’ll eat my hat. With my brand new crown.

https _upload.wikimedia.org_wikipedia_commons_d_d0_CEREC-kronprep

Like this quirky little blog? Then You’ll love my book!

The Molar Mic

New technology. And the Pentagon is interested.

Having expended great effort to try, unfortunately without success, to become a Dental Laboratory Technologist, I am still fascinated by all innovations dental. You’d be surprised at how many there are. Needless to say, they rarely grab headlines.

But when a friend sent me this article about the Molar Mic, I was floored. Here you have a mic that fits on your back molar, and can not only transmit what you say, but also receive sound. That’s the fascinating part for me. Because you aren’t hearing those sounds through your ear, you’re hearing them through your bones. It never occurred to me that that was even possible. The sound vibrates through your skull right by your auditory nerve, and apparently with practice you can hear it quite well.

Now the Pentagon is interested. (Damn, but I wish I got in on the ground floor of that stock!) Apparently this thing has been tested out in Afghanistan and also during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, with very favorable results.

Imagine being able to communicate hands free, in a wide variety of environments, without even having to worry about dropping a device that is attached to your person. Imagine hearing things that other people can’t without having to worry about your sanity. The possibilities are endless.

Could this technology take a nefarious turn? Sure. Spying. Terrorism. Being recorded without your consent. It’s all possible, and, sadly, that’s  why this research will most likely continue to be funded.

But I’m imagining how this technology might evolve. I picture myself driving down the highway, discussing with my husband whether or not I need to bring home a gallon of milk. Sure, people might think I’m talking to myself, but hey, I’ve been known to do that anyway.


Like the way my weird mind works? Then you’ll enjoy my book!

Giving Up

Not every dream you have is going to work out. Not every person you fall for is going to love you back. Sometimes you will make the wrong choices, life will get in the way, or things will be out of your control.

That was made abundantly clear the other day when I was unpacking boxes that I had been storing in my guest room. I was confronted with about 25 pounds of notes that I had taken when I was pursuing my Dental Laboratory Technology degree. Despite graduating with honors and having high hopes about buying a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina and starting my own dental lab out of the garage, here I am, a bridgetender in Seattle.

I wanted that dream so badly I could taste it. But I couldn’t convince anyone to hire me so that I could gain the needed experience, and I certainly couldn’t control the fact that 6 months later I needed surgery on my wrist that would make it physically impossible to do that work.

The death of a dream. Hate when that happens. I think I went into mourning for about a year, and despite the fact that I’ve since moved on, I couldn’t quite bring myself to get rid of those notes. I lugged them all the way across the country with me, even though I knew, without a doubt, that I’d have no use for them. I just wasn’t ready to let go.

So here was this massive pile of emotionally-charged notes that were taking up space in my guest room. But this was ridiculous. The last thing I need is a 25 pound albatross around my neck. So, trying not to think too much, I pitched them all into the recycle bin.

Well, no, not all of them. I kept my orthodontic notes. And textbooks. And tools. Because that’s what I wanted to do—make orthodontic appliances, like retainers. I know I’m being silly. I know that dream isn’t happening, ever. But it’s a part of who I was, who I am. And those tools might actually come in handy. You never know.

But it was rather cleansing, getting rid of all the other stuff. It felt like another step toward healing. It was high time.

Giving up on something or someone after you’ve exhausted all viable avenues of pursuit isn’t necessarily defeat. It isn’t abject failure, either. It means, quite often, that you’re being a mature adult who is being realistic and moving on.

There’s no shame in that. It’s a huge part of life. And if you’re lucky, like I’ve been, you can look back from a good place and realize you actually wound up right where you were supposed to be all along. You may not have been able to see it in the past, but things have a funny way of working out the way they should.

Sometimes you have to give up in order to get something spectacular. Sometimes giving up is the right thing to do.


Hey! Look what I wrote!

Hell Hath its Benefits

When I listen to my coworkers complain about this job, I have to inwardly giggle. They think this job is bad. They think they’re being mistreated.

For 13 years I was in a horrible job situation. I worked graveyard shifts and got a one dollar raise every 6 years, and they tried to find ways to deny us even that. I had no health insurance to speak of. We got $3000 dollars a year to spend on our health, including prescriptions. After that, we were on our own. I was usually on my own by about the end of February. Forget about dental or vision or retirement. It was a right to work state, so we could be fired without cause. Racism and sexism were blatant and they made neither apologies nor excuses for them.

That’s what happens when you don’t have a union. Do you honestly believe that employers will treat you decently of their own free will? Trust me when I say that doesn’t happen. I’ve lived it.

So when I got this union job, which pays 2 ½ times as much for the same work, and has health insurance, vision, dental, retirement, deferred compensation, and more paid vacation time than I know what to do with, I felt as though l had died and gone to heaven. What’s to complain about?

That’s something you never think about when times are tough. Having lived in hell, you will always be grateful for and fully aware of those moments when you are no longer there. That’s something that my coworkers don’t have: the pure and bitter glory of perspective. What a gift. Seriously. What a gift.


[Image credit:]

Pardon Me While I Rant

(Since I feel like a break today, I’m posting an article that I wrote which was published in Folio Weekly, a local alternative newspaper here in Jacksonville, Florida, in October, 2012.)

I’d like to think I’m a good person. I have followed the rules all my life. I don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. The police have never been called to my door. I got straight A’s in school. When I’ve got the sniffles, I power through and go to work. I don’t litter. I vote. I donate blood sporadically. I give little old ladies my seat on the bus. I pay my taxes. I even recycle.  I just made my 34th micro loan to When I was 10 years old, I started my own business growing and selling house plants at the flea market, and I’ve pretty much worked or been in school ever since. I’m not the kind of person you’ll see on Jerry Springer. I don’t even WATCH Jerry Springer.

Is it just me, or should all of the above count for something? I mean, after 47 years of never coloring outside the lines, you’d think that the universe could see its way clear to cut me just the tiniest bit of slack. So much for good karma.

Two years ago I decided that my life was one big do-over. I was at a job that I loved, but it had no room for advancement, lousy pay, and even worse benefits. I needed a change. So I started researching other careers, and quickly became overwhelmed with the possibilities. Then I decided to go backward. Instead of trying to find a new career, I decided to figure out what kind of LIFE I wanted, and then figure out what type of career would allow me to have that life. To heck with the fact that now is not the time to be leaving a perfectly good job. I had a tiger by the tail, man! The sky was the limit for me! And everyone told me they admired my courage. Before I knew it, I’d sold my house (and took a total financial BATH on it, to be honest), left a 16 year relationship, quit my job, and moved myself and my dogs 3 ½ hours south, where I knew no one, all so I could study Dental Laboratory Technology at the only school in Florida that offers it.

Don’t say it. Do NOT mistake me for a Dental Hygienist. I respect that profession immensely, but no WAY is this girl sticking her hands into other people’s mouths. No. What I learned to do is make dental appliances such as retainers. And oh, how I love it! I love making things with my hands. I love the variety. I love solving dental problems for people. I love the smell of acrylic before it hardens. I graduated Summa Cum Laude in May.  So, happy ending, right? Of course not, or I wouldn’t be ranting. I sent out 198 resumes and/or applications to dental laboratories, and was willing to relocate anywhere on the continent… and NOTHING. Rejection letter upon rejection letter. Yeah, yeah, the economy. Blah, blah, blah.

I gambled and I lost. I’ve no one to blame but myself. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that that wasn’t supposed to happen. What about the American dream? Where’s the chicken in every pot, for Pete’s sake? I’m not only chicken-less, but I’m pot-less, people!

So, with my tail between my legs, I went back to my old job. Thank heavens I had left on good terms, or I’d be in deep trouble. And I realize I’m lucky to even HAVE a job in this day and age. The problem is that I’m now homeless. Before, I was able to survive on 10 dollars an hour because I had owned my home for 25 years, and the mortgage was only 430 dollars a month. Now, even though I have a some of the money from the sale of my house still left over, and a credit rating of 835, which is about as good as you can get, no one will allow me to buy a home, because I don’t have a year and a half of work history. Well, duh. I was in college. And I’m back with the employer who kept me for 10 years, so you’d think that this would indicate a modicum of stability. But no one will touch me. This thrusts me squarely back into the realm of renting. Great. Except that based on my calculations, the very most I can afford to pay is 600 dollars a month, and everything I’ve seen in that price range in this town comes with either hot and cold running cockroaches or hot and cold running crack addicts.

Get a studio apartment, you say. Well, yeah, but I still have my two little dogs, and while they’re mature and not destructive, if they heard strangers on the other side of the wall, they’d bark and that would not work out well in the long run. Give up the dogs, the only bright spot in my otherwise dreary existence and my only source of unconditional love? It makes me cry to think that that is what I’ll be forced to do.

Do I sound like a brat to you? Believe me, I do realize that I’m a lot better off than most people in the world. I’m grateful for so much. I live in a country with no famine or gulags or land mines, I have good friends and family, I have no children to worry about. I’m intelligent and relatively healthy. But I’ve worked hard for everything I have, and like most Americans, since birth I’ve been spoon fed the idea that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. Instead of a mid-life crisis, I seem to be having a mid-life tantrum, because I never truly believed that I could lose everything. And I mean EVERYTHING.

How is this possible? I’m 47 and I’m sleeping on a friend’s couch. Half of everything I own has been stuffed into the back seat of my ratty old car for a month and a half now. I feel like a freakin’ Okie, a la the Grapes of Wrath. Don’t I deserve my dogs? I mean, is that too much to ask?

I always thought I understood the concept of homelessness. I’ve seen people on the streets and it breaks my heart. I’ve donated clothing. I’ve thought about what it would be like, and I know that one way or another I’ll always be lucky enough to have some sort of roof over my head, whether it be mine or someone else’s, and for that I’m quite grateful. But when thinking about homelessness, I never really grasped the fundamental concept of wanting desperately to go home, and having no home to go to. Call me nouveau homeless if you want. I haven’t really earned the right to be called just plain homeless. I haven’t paid my dues. Yet. I strongly suspect that I have a great deal more to lose before all is said and done, though, so who knows?

So if you see me driving around in my ratty red sedan, which is bursting at the seams with old family photographs, college yearbooks, and my favorite lamp,  and I’m stopping at every for rent sign I see, please be kind. I realize I’m grasping at straws, thinking that there is a 600 dollar a month single family house somewhere out there that will allow me to keep my two little dogs and not have to go to bed with a cocked pistol under my pillow. Try not to laugh too loudly at my naiveté. You will be witnessing the last gasp of an American dreamer who just wants, more than anything, to go home.

(Update: I’m happy to say that since the writing of this article, I’ve found a wonderful place to live, and my dogs and I are quite happy here. However, it’s more than I can afford, really, and I’m spending 350.00 a month more than I’m earning as a bridgetender. If something doesn’t change soon, I’ll be back on the streets in about 5 months. It’s a scary and unsustainable way to live.)