They may have lived in an era when dental care was rudimentary at best, but the ancient Romans had better teeth than us, new research has revealed.
Scientists have used CT scans to examine the remains of 30 men, women and children who were killed in Pompeii when the city was engulfed by ash and pumice from Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. After months of research, their most startling discovery was the excellent condition of the Romans' teeth, which researchers ascribed to a low-sugar, fibre-rich Mediterranean diet.
"The inhabitants of Pompeii ate a lot of fruit and vegetables but very little sugar," said Elisa Vanacore, a dental expert. "They ate better than we did and have really good teeth. Studying their teeth could reveal a lot more about their lives."
Although they were strangers to toothbrushes or toothpaste, their healthy diet meant that few of the Romans suffered from cavities, the CT scans showed. "Their diet was balanced and healthy, similar to what we now call the Mediterranean diet," said Massimo Osanna, the director of the ancient site near Naples. "The research is a big step forward in our understanding of the Roman world. Exceptional findings are emerging about their age, sex, social status and dietary habits."
One of the surprising discoveries was that the bones contained high levels of fluoride, due to the water that supplied Pompeii. Fluoride in excessive amounts can cause arthritis and bone fractures. Three-dimensional imaging has revealed the 30 victims' skeletons in stunning detail, as well as those of a dog and a wild boar, all trapped in the conflagration that devastated Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum when Vesuvius erupted.
When waves of blisteringly hot ash consumed Pompeii, many people suffocated and were buried, with the ash gradually hardening into pumice that encased their bodies. Over time the soft tissue of the bodies rotted away, leaving cavities containing just their skeletons. It was archaeologists in the 19th century who pioneered the technique of pouring plaster into the cavities.
Once the plaster hardened, the archaeologists chipped away at the surrounding pumice to extract detailed casts of the victims, many of them contorted in the last few agonising moments before death.
Scans of the plasters reveal many victims suffered severe cranial injuries, caused by falling masonry and rubble.
A team of Italian radiologists, archaeologists, orthodontists and anthropologists plan to examine a 86 bodies. They have used a contrast dye that mimics the appearance of muscles and skin to help accentuate the victims' features.