dental anthropology

I, Dental Anthropologist

It's that time again! Third year of my #dayofarch posts... if you're dying to see how they've changed over the years, have a look at 2011 (augmented reality!) and 2012 ( i reveal myself to be the tooth fairy)...

Really, I work at the Natural History Museum in London (and tweet at @brennawalks / blog at ). And if you didn’t already know, I’m part of the collective Tumblr of awesome that is Trowelblazers ( @trowelblazers). We get all excited about inspirational female pioneers in the trowel-blazing arts 🙂


Archaeology, huh? Life outdoors? Fresh air?

Meh. Up to your hips in muddy water in February, more like it. That’s why I went and got myself a speciality….


Yes. I am a living, breathing example of the incredibly rare animal… the Dental Anthropologist. And yes, that’s a real thing.

What do I do? Well… today, I’m hashing out some code that will preform a simple spatial analysis that will tell me about the distribution of different types of tissue on a thin section of a tooth.

Before I could even get to this stage, however, there was a long and laborious process of making histological thin sections, digitally scanning histological slides, and then digitising lots of information from the tooth. But the end result will be that I will know to the day the ins and outs of someone’s childhood – growth faltering, chemical composition changes, and a host of other things that we can find out in the lab.

So why teeth? A few reasons:

1. Teeth don’t remodel. You grow ’em once, and you’re stuck with them.

With the rest of your skeleton, remodelling can hide traces of past events — if you broke your arm as a child, you might not ever know from looking at your adult skeleton. Whereas everything that happens to your teeth as they are growing is crystalised right at the moment, leaving an unedited record of the time when your teeth were developing.

2. Teeth grow in a very regular pattern. Like tree rings.


Because teeth are so regular, we know exactly which bits are forming when. So if something happens to a kid, like a bad fever or a period of starvation, that disrupts normal development, we can work out exactly when it happened. Take a look at these lines, left on a tooth from when the individual was so sick that growth stopped for a time. If we magnify it in a scanning electron microscope, we can work out how old the kid was in days when growth stopped:


That’s fairly impressive for a kid who has been dead for almost 200 years!
3. Everybody Teethes
Almost everyone has teeth! Teeth usually survive really well in archaeological sites because they are heavily mineralised – sometimes they are the only part of a skeleton left. In my current work, I look at both the teeth from modern humans (super modern. Like, the subjects are still alive) and the teeth from children who died nearly ten thousand years ago a continent away in Central Anatolia.
Actually, I’m gearing up now to leave for the field to go and take some casts of teeth of children who lived at the site of Aşıklı Höyük right when people were sorting out that whole ‘to-setttle-down-and-farm-or-not-to-settle-down-and-farm’ question. The casting itself is a funny process, normally used by dentists, but turns out archaeologists can adapt just about anything…

Live dispatches from the Tooth Fairy

So, now you know. The Tooth Fairy is an archaeologist.

Archaeologists get everywhere. Like sand. This also applies to  jobs, so it’s not totally impossible that someone who specialises in the minute structures of teeth (see my previous post from DayofArch 2011) would end up in the overwhelmingly awesome Human Origins Research Group at the Natural History Museum, London.

Natural History Museum

For starters, this is an awesome place to work. Yesterday I found out that during WWII, the collections were evacuated to stately homes across the country to escape the Blitz… complete with associated researchers. And there’s a basement here that’s really a bomb shelter which was used by Churchill as a telephone exchange – part of the secret tunnels which run all under this area up to the Palace and War Rooms. Herman Hess apparently even spent a few nights in the Anthro Stores before his trial.

And today, on the Day of Archaeology, this particular Tooth Fairy is gearing up for more research than you can shake a stick at. In relation to the main project I work on at the NHM I’ve:

uwrapped my new camera toy;

eaten cake and discussed human origins/Euro2012; and

discovered a disturbing image mode setting on the new camera.

I’m also getting ready to go out to the field to look at the teeth of children who died in central Anatolia (Turkey) sometime between 10,500-8,500 years ago.  These are the remains of subadults from the amazing site of Aşıklı Höyük, the earliest settlement of the Anatolian Plateau.

I’ll be looking at the microscopic records of growth captured on every tooth–perikymata–to see how these children lived and grew. Like tree-rings, the lines on the outside of our teeth give a lot of information on how we grew (here‘s a more in-depth explanation). It’s a way to find out about health and development in early childhood at the very beginning of human settlement. Were there lots of growth disruptions? Can we see records of illness that might suggest seasonal diseases related to shifting subsistence patterns? That tell us about birth spacing?

I’m excited to find out. Even if I will totally get green dental impression material all over my nice new lab coat. It’s the price you pay for science!

Anyway, my days are pretty varied, but you can certainly keep up with me @brennawalks, or follow @ah_arkeoloji for more on Aşıklı Höyük.


N.B. All opinions etc. are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my benevolent employer. Images under creative commons fair use.