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Ancient Romans in Pompeii Had ‘Perfect Teeth’

A new study reveals what life was like in Pompeii — and how it ended when Mount Vesuvius erupted

(Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., death struck the people of Pompeii in a blast of ash, gas and pumice. The eruption preserved their bodies, along with the city and its famed culture, but questions still surround their lives and last moments. How did they live? How exactly did they die? A new examination of plaster casts created by 19th-century archaeologists may hold the answer, as well as details about the Pompeii diet, reports Adrienne LaFrance for The Atlantic.

Many victims caught in the eruption were killed by head injuries, perhaps from debris that fell from collapsing buildings, according to multi-layer CAT scans. Researchers used the advanced imaging analysis technique to study 30 of the body casts, which were made with dense plaster in the early 1800s. "One of the problems we encountered was the density of chalk used for the cast technique," Pompeii superintendent Massimo Osanna tells ANSA, an Italian news agency. "It is a density similar to bones, that's why we had to use the 16-layer CAT technology."

That wasn't the only surprise for the researchers: their analysis also revealed that the people of Pompeii had nearly "perfect teeth," ANSA reports. A low-sugar diet, rich in fruit and vegetables — along with fluorine that was present in a local water source— gave them their pearly whites. (The Mediterranean diet scores again!) The only dental damage was apparently due to the people’s habits of "cutting or snapping objects with their jaws," ANSA adds. 

The quality of their teeth is striking in at least one of the scans. “They ate better than we did," dental expert Elisa Vanacore tells Nick Squires for The Telegraph. "Studying their teeth could reveal a lot more about their lives.” The researchers plan to scan 86 of the preserved Pompeii bodies, Squires reports, so more discoveries almost certainly lie ahead.

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