Plaque in the Roman Empire

Roman Skeleton Museum of London in Docklands Exhibition 2018 photo K. Flude

I was puzzled to find a message, from reader of this blog Harriet Salisbury, voicing interest in coming on my ‘Decline and Fall of Roman London’ Walk in order to find out about Roman Dental problems.

Harriet is not only a brilliant editor, but also the author of a great book on the oral history of war time London, so I had to follow up this puzzling comment. And my recent post on my upcoming walk said:

Faced with plaque, civil war, invasion, mass immigration,  industrial decline, reversion to barter; the authorities struggled against anarchy and descent into a Dark Age

Now there are many reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire but I have never yet heard anyone, apart from me, blame dental plaque. So, I then spent a couple of hours changing the q of plaque to the g of plague in various places where the deadly dental disease was referred to. Of course, Harriet might equally have wondered whether a rash of information panels had been a contributory cause?

As you will know I have an interest in the history of health and medicine. A cursory glance at any of the skeletons you find in museums will normally show that pre-modern skulls have much better teeth health than modern people. And the reason for this is, mostly, because they did not have sugar to rot their teeth. Instead of sugar-created cavities, their problem tended to be wearing teeth out by the roughness of the grain they used. But I investigated more and found that recent work in Herculaneum and Pompeii had investigated Roman teeth health in a scientific manner. This showed that the diet of even the poor was much better than most modern diets because it was essential the much lauded ‘Mediterranean Diet’ with olive oil, no added sugar, lots of vegetables,fruits and smaller amounts of meat. In short, Roman society had a system in which even the poor had balanced nutritional diets, and therefore good levels of natural immunity.

Pompeii also had a high level of fluoride in the water. The Romans seem to have brushed their teeth with a flayed stick and used abrasives made of ‘ground-up hooves, pumice, eggshells, seashells, and ashes‘. They used a mouth wash of human and animal urine, and disgusting as this may seem, the ammonia would have acted as a cleansing agent.

To find out more about the science behind the story please go to:

This picture from ebay shows you a flayed stick toothbrush – I include the seller information so you can buy some!

Ebay Ad for natural toothbrushes

Harriet’s book was based on a wonderful oral history collection at the Museum of London. Worth having in you are interested in London history, the Blitz and ordinary people’s lives. And also for any lover of ‘Call the Midwife’.

This is a screenshot of ‘The War on our Doorstep’ so the link won’t work, but World of Books or any other online book seller (including the ‘evil empire’ but best not to boost the income of such stupidly rich people?)

I have updated and reposted my January 4th post to include what to look out for in the night skies in January.

New Walk! The Decline And Fall Of Roman London Walk

Reconstruction View of Roman Riverside Wall being built
Reconstruction View of Roman Riverside Wall being built

Sunday 22nd January 11.30am Exit 2 St Pauls Underground Station

An exploration of what happened at the end of the Roman Period, and how the City became deserted, and then, reborn as an English City.

The first British Brexit?   The Roman Britons kicked out the Romans in 407AD, and, soon, asked them to come back after a catastrophic collapse.  Faced with plague, civil war, invasion, mass immigration,  industrial decline, reversion to barter; the authorities struggled against anarchy and descent into a dark age.

But was that how it was?  Wasn’t it a rather a transition into the Late Antique period in which life for most people went on much as before except paying taxes to local rulers rather than distant Romans?

The walk investigates why the Roman system in London broke down, and what really was the impact of the end of the Roman system in London? What is the evidence?  and can we trust it? Or can we really do nothing much more than guess? 

We tramp the streets of London in search of light to shine on the dark age of London.

This is a London Walks event by Kevin Flude, ex Museum of London Archaeology and Museum Curator

To Book: