In the late 1980s, archaeologists began noticing something when they uncovered the buried remains of men from the Viking Age. They have been described as “strange marks on the teeth, as if someone had carved or cut horizontal grooves in them with a knife.” Were the Vikings really filing their own teeth?
Since then over 130 examples have been found in the Norse world of filed teeth, nearly all of them in Sweden. They were usually on the upper front teeth, and these grooves could be thin or deep, mostly horizontal but in a few cases vertical. Many were just straight lines, but we could also see crescent-shaped marks as well.
The first major study of the phenomenon was made by Caroline Arcini in 2005. At that time we only knew about a couple dozen cases. She wrote that “the marks are skilfully made, and it is most likely that the individuals did not make the marks themselves, but that someone else must have ﬁled them.”
Most Vikings did not have such dental work done, which is perhaps not unsurprising considering that the filing of teeth would have been an extremely painful procedure. Arcini adds that to show off the teeth the Viking male would have had to smile broadly. Furthermore, she speculates that they may have even coloured their teeth as well, explaining “maybe they mixed some color with fat or wax before putting it on the teeth, e.g., fat and charcoal to get a black line. This coloring, however, would have disappeared when they ate and drank, so they would have had to reapply the color.”
Since that first study Arcini has been able to discover many more cases of filed teeth among the Norsemen, and has written about it in her book The Viking Age: A Time of Many Faces. She notes that the one can find other examples of cultures that made deliberate tooth modifications in different times and places – from Central America to the Philippines. However, nothing else like this appears in medieval Europe.
Were these men warriors, elites, or slaves? Arcini was able to examine more details about the remains, and the answers seem to be no. Very few were buried with weapons or had battle-related injuries. Meanwhile, the stature of these men corresponds to the general population, including people who were short or extremely tall. It does not seem that filed teeth was something exclusive for rulers or leaders, nor was a mark given to slaves.
Could the filing of teeth be the mark of initiation among the Vikings – “a boy’s entry into adult life” as Arcini explains? She continues:
The results show that filed teeth are found in adult individuals of all age groups and proportionally in relation to the age distribution of the group as a whole. The filing can of course have been done on young adults, as it lasts for life. Yet the phenomenon has been observed among any men under the age of 20. In other words, there is nothing to suggest that it is a rite of passage. Scanning electron microscopy of some of them shows that they had eaten after the filing was done. There are also some with calculus in the filed groove, indicating that the filed furrows were produced well before death.
The only clue we have so far is that about 80% of the cases found so far come from Gotland, the Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. This offers some suggestions that Arcini notes:
One hypothesis is that the custom had its origin on the island, and that the men with filed teeth whom we find in other places than Gotland were Gotlanders who had moved from the island. If the custom if Gothlandic, according to another hypothesis, those who were not originally from Gotland could have been there to get their teeth filed; after visiting Gotland they either went home and died there or travelled on and died somewhere else, and were thus not buried on Gotland. A third possibility is that the modification of the teeth was performed in other places and that Gotland, for some reason, was a gathering point for something that the filed marks represent.
Of the more than 130 cases we now know of, all but three are from Sweden, with two of the remaining people in Denmark, and another from England as part of the mass grave of Scandinavian men killed at Dorset. Arcini finds only one more case that might be related – a man from Egypt that was buried in the early eighth century. His filed teeth look very similar to the Norse examples. Arcini asks, “should the case in Egypt be viewed solely as coincidence, a custom arising independently in two places, or is it possible that there was some contact, some way the idea could spread?”
Arcini hopes that more discoveries and research will provide the answers. Now that this phenomenon of filed teeth among the Vikings is becoming known, more archaeologists will be looking for examples and hopefully offer more insights into this intriguing practice.