Ancient Swedish Vikings Also Needed Dentist Appointments

The jaws and teeth of Ancient Swedish Viking skulls show tooth decay. Could they have treated it themselves?

By Elizabeth Gamillo
Dec 19, 2023 2:30 PMDec 19, 2023 2:32 PM
Examining Viking Teeth
(Credit: Carolina Bertilsson, CC-BY 4.0)


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Teeth can reveal a lot about the lives of ancient humans. The tiny bones withstand the test of time, and by analyzing the wear and decay of teeth, archeologists can infer ancient civilizations' eating and dental habits.

The Vikings grin most likely had signs of tooth decay, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE. After uncovering a cemetery with Viking graves dating to the 10th and 12th centuries, the team found that suffering from tooth decay, tooth loss, and infections was common during this time. Vikings also modified their teeth by filing and picking.

Did Vikings Have Cavities? 

(Credit: Bertilsson C, Vretemark M, Lund H, Lingström P (2023))

Scientists looked at over 3,293 teeth from 171 Vikings with complete or partial sets of teeth. The teeth were excavated from an ancient cemetery found in 2005. Out of all the individuals, about half of the population, or 83 out of the 171 Vikings, had at least one cavity or had signs of tooth decay, mainly on the root surface (25 percent of the population had root cavities). However, juvenile Vikings did not show signs of tooth decay.

Other signs of dental issues among the ancient skulls included tooth infections and tooth loss before death. In some cases, the researchers observed intentional tooth abrasions that likely were done to ease tooth pain. Some abrasions were also caused by toothpicking from removing food stuck between teeth.

Read More: The Secret History of the Vikings

What Did Vikings Do to Their Teeth?

(Credit: Arcini, C. (2020). Intentionally Modified Teeth Among the Vikings: Was It Painful?. In: Sheridan, S.G., Gregoricka, L.A. (eds) Purposeful Pain. Bioarchaeology and Social Theory. Springer, Cham.

Other studies have found that the Vikings purposely filed lines into the front of their teeth. In the skulls of 24 men from the Viking Age (800-1050 A.D.), archeologists found grooves etched into the upper part of the individual's front teeth. Single or multiple lines are typically found.

How Did Vikings File Their Teeth?

The lines described as "furrows" in the study published in the American Journal of Biological Anthropology were so well made that experts suspect they were carved by someone skilled at the service. The horizontal lines could have represented tradespeople in the culture; they could have been purely decorative, or they could have been a marker of identity.

Among the individuals observed for the recent study, there was one instance where a skull belonging to a male between 35 and 50 years old had filed teeth, worn molars, and three cavity lesions.

Read More: What Language Did the Vikings Speak?

What Can Viking Teeth Tell Us?

Looking into how Viking Teeth wore down and developed tooth decay can give researchers unique insights into early life in Viking settlements. For example, a high number of cavities among a population indicates diets high in starchy carbohydrates, according to the study.

What Did Vikings Eat?

(Credit: David Pimborough/Shutterstock)

Vikings were known to indulge in foods heavy in fats. According to the National Museum of Denmark, the Vikings' plates held meat, fish, dairy products, cereals, bread, porridge, vegetables, and fruit. Vikings also swigged in large amounts of beer because water was not safe enough to drink at this time.

Read More: What Real Vikings Wore, According to Archaeologists

Ancient Humans and Tooth Decay

Tooth decay among Vikings is like that of other European populations around the same time. However, the study's researchers note that the number of missing teeth from post-mortem loss or those that fell out while still alive was considered when looking at the population overall and the prevalence of cavities.

The team also found that cavities in older adults decreased with age, but this may be because they lost their teeth due to decay. Meaning that teeth with the most decay were not present when archeologists examined the Viking remains.  

Read More: Yes, Vikings Really Did Live in the Americas 1000 Years Ago

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