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Vikings filed their teeth to cope with pain

No one likes having a dental cavity. They hurt and can be very expensive to take care of. Our species has been trying to fix our teeth for at least 14,000 years and painful dental problems even plagued Swedish vikings. More than 2,300 juvenile and adult teeth found near a church in Sweden dating back to the 10th through 12th Century CE had evidence of dental problems. They had evidence of tooth decay called caries and even oral diseases that some tried to treat. The findings are described in a study published December 13 in PLOS ONE.

“I think both dental caries and other dental diseases are very relatable,” Carolina Bertilsson, a study co-author and dentist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, tells PopSci. “It is awful to imagine the suffering some of these individuals with decay, tooth extractions, and infections must have gone through, without any of the methods we use today in modern dentistry.”

The teeth were uncovered during a 2005 excavation of the remains of a Christian church in present-day Skara, Sweden. The nearby cemetery contained thousands of Viking graves and a team from University of Gothenburg examined teeth belonging to 171 individuals. The team used radiography to take detailed images of the teeth that were also physically examined by a team of dentists and osteoarchaeologists.

While none of the juveniles had evidence of dental caries, 60 percent of the adult remains showed signs of tooth decay. The team also saw traces of tooth infection and signs that some teeth had been lost before death. Many of the individuals likely had tooth decay that would have been severe enough to cause pain and there were signs of attempted dental treatments. One individual also showed signs of filed front teeth similar to those seen in other Swedish Viking remains. 

“It seems like the Vikings tried to file their teeth to ease the pain from infected teeth,” says Bertilsson.

Viking teeth filed and picking
Right: Teeth that have been filed down recovered from the excavation site. Left: Evidence that the individual picked at their teeth, likely to keep them clean. CREDIT: Carolina Bertilsson.

Caries are caused by a buildup of bacteria near the teeth from not cleaning them often and consuming food high in starches and sugar. The diet during the late Viking Age primarily consisted of local produce, meat, fish, dairy, porridge, and breads made from rye, wheat, and barley. They drank beer, mead, and milk since water sources were likely not safe to drink. 

“Sweet taste came from honey, malt, and fruits and berries naturally grown in Scandinavia,” says Bertilsson.

The coarseness of the food and high intake of starch combined with the lack of dental care partially explain the tooth decay. Other factors including individual differences in saliva, genetics, and physiology also may have had an impact on the caries. Personal hygiene and habits also likely played a role in dental health the way consistent brushing and flossing does today. 

“In many individuals, we could also see wear from the usage of toothpicks which indicates that some of the Vikings were very keen to try and keep their teeth clean,” says Bertilsson.

There was also evidence of other attempts to treat dental infections like tooth extractions. It is unclear who would have performed these treatments, some type of professional or the individual with the teeth issues themselves. 

The prevalence of the dental caries in this population is also similar to what has been noted in other European populations from the time. However, nearly a quarter of these individuals appear to have lost teeth before death, which likely skews this analysis. The prevalence of tooth decay appeared to decrease with age, and this unexpected result likely reflects more tooth loss in older Vikings, so the most decayed teeth were not present in the remains. 

In future studies, the team plans to study other remains for evidence of the types of bacteria present in the body and what effect that may have had on the dental health of the Vikings. 

“It makes me appreciate the time I live in, with the possibility to help my patients with local anesthetics during dental treatments, and antibiotics when needed,” says Bertilsson.

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