Art Spotted: Ancient Mayan Dental Decoration

Mayan jeweled dental inlay.  Picture courtesy José C. Jiménez López of National Geographic.

Today’s Art Spotted comes from the Late Classic Mayan Period (from 700 to 900 CE/AD).  Intentional dental modification in the Mayan culture dates back to at least 2,500 years ago.  Jeweled inlays on the outer side of the teeth (the labial surface) required extremely skilled dentists as it would be easy to injure the pulp cavity.  Inlays of turquoise, gold, pyrite, and jadeite were common and anthropologists believe that this type of dental modification was linked with high social status.  Filing crosshatched grooves into the labial surface of the teeth, filing the teeth into points, or altering the shape of the dental crown in other ways were also common.

Crosshatch design on the labial surface of the incisors. Image courtesy UIC.

The Mayans were not the only culture known to intentionally modify their teeth.  Archaeologists have also found evidence of horizontal grooves filed into the teeth of young Viking males dating from 800 to 1050 CE/AD.  It is also interesting to note that intentional dental modification continues into the modern era in both permanent and non-permanent forms.  The piece of jewelry known as the grill, a fitted metal cap worn over the teeth and typically studded with gemstones, appeared in the early 1980s and became widely known and popularized in America during the mid-2000s.

Horizontal furrows filed into Viking teeth. Image courtesy Caroline Alcini, via National Geographic.
USA gold medal Olympian Ryan Lochte with his American flag grill on 28 July 2012. Image courtesy Michael Dalder.

How do you feel about dental modification?  Would you ever consider wearing a non-permanent grill or getting your teeth permanently modified/inlaid with jewels?

For more information on Mayan inlay dental modification: click here to read the National Geographic article.

For more information of the different types of Mayan dental modification: click here.

For information of Viking dental modification: click here.

Also visit the original article from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology: click here (pdf file).

To read about grills: click here.

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6 thoughts on “Art Spotted: Ancient Mayan Dental Decoration

  1. We modern humans like to think of our body decorations as new and daring (tattooing, piercing, grills), but they always have their roots in antiquity, which I think makes them so much more interesting.

    1. That’s exactly what excites me about it! There is always a history for these types of ideas and there is obviously something very ubiquitous about the need to express ourselves this way. We humans are an interesting bunch!

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