Roman Society Was Diverse, Mobile, and Afflicted with Gum DiseaseJan 20, 2016, by
An exhibit at the London Museum uses modern technology to give us unparalleled insight into the nature of Roman society in Londinium, the Roman outpost that served as a foundation for the modern city. Using these analytical techniques, researchers showed, among other things, that Roman society likely had gum disease at least as bad as moderns, if not worse.
Reading the Stories “Written in Bone” and Tooth
The London Museum exhibit is called “Written in Bone,” but the truth is that many of the findings are actually related to the teeth. For example, ancient DNA analysis–which allowed them to determine hair and eye color for each individual, their chromosomal sex, and even what diseases they had–was performed on an extracted tooth. The DNA testing is related to what we use to determine your gum disease risk. Mobility isotopes, which are local pollutants that can be traced to certain geographical regions, are also found in teeth, where they get incorporated into the enamel as it develops.
Ironically, diet information came not from the teeth, but from the ribs, where dietary isotopes accumulated to show what each person ate. I guess you really can say that ancient foods really stuck to your ribs.
One of the compelling stories this information puts together is that of the Lant Street Teenager, who died at the age of 14. Although her family came from the eastern edges of the Roman Empire, such as the Balkans or Turkey, she was actually born in North Africa, and moved to London at least four years before she died. In addition to gum disease, she suffered from rickets.
Rickets is a vitamin D deficiency. Since the body generates vitamin D through exposure to sun, this means that she likely got less sun exposure than modern Britons, which is kind of hard to imagine for a society with such open spaces, and no modern distractions like TV to keep people from enjoying the outdoors. It’s possible she was a slave who wasn’t allowed outside much, or maybe she had difficulty adapting to the dim, cloudy climate of London.
Gum Disease Was Prevalent
This exhibit focuses on just four individuals, all of whom had gum disease. If the level of gum disease in the previous study (5%) were accurate, it would be very unlikely that all four individuals chosen randomly would have gum disease, about 6 in a million. However, if gum disease levels were more like today’s 47%, the odds that all four individuals chosen would have gum disease is still only about 5%. If anything, this exhibit suggests that gum disease was more prevalent in Roman times, perhaps universal.
Fortunately, modern medicine puts us in a better position to treat gum disease and other health problems so that not only will twice as many people live past the age of 65, but most of them will do so with all their teeth.