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Viking Dentistry: Astonishing Research Reveals More Awareness About Oral Health Than We Imagined


Recent research shows Vikings had cavities, tooth loss, and dental procedures. They also used toothpicks. Here is what else we know about Viking dentistry.

Viking Dentistry: Astonishing Research Reveals More Awareness About Oral Health Than We Imagined | Image Credit: © Nadine - stock.adobe.com / AI Generated

Viking Dentistry: Astonishing Research Reveals More Awareness About Oral Health Than We Imagined | Image Credit: © Nadine - stock.adobe.com / AI Generated

You probably knew Vikings were excellent at conquering other peoples of their time. But you probably did not know much about how these bold and mighty warriors handled their oral care. Dental care is not usually a featured topic in recounting Viking culture.

However, a recent discovery at an archaeological site in Sweden clarifies that dental care was indeed part of Vikings’ lives. Perhaps more surprisingly, preventive care was, too.

Researchers discovered the Viking teeth at the famous Varnhem archaeological dig in Sweden. The soil type helped preserve the remains, including the deceased Vikings’ bones and teeth. The team uncovered that Vikings knew much about teeth, including how to relieve pain from infection and even some preventive measures. One researcher commented that they were not sure whether the Vikings discovered these things about teeth themselves or learned from an outside influence.1

The late 2023 study from PLOS One explains that the research team analyzed human teeth from the late Swedish Viking Age, around the 10th to 12th centuries, to learn about their dental health. Complete and incomplete teeth from 171 individuals were found, totaling 3293 teeth.2

To understand the dental health of the Viking population, researchers employed standard dentistry tools used in routine checkups under bright light and x-rays.3 However, the teeth they examined were not routine at all.

So, What Did They Discover?
The Viking teeth recovered at the site had no shortage of cavities. Almost half of the people whose teeth were examined (49%) had at least 1 cavity. Surprisingly, individuals with primary teeth only or a mix of primary and permanent teeth were cavity free. By contrast, 13% of the adult teeth had cavities, with the root surface and first lower molar particularly vulnerable to decay. Moreover, about 4% of the Viking teeth from the site showed signs of infection at the tooth tip.2

Researchers also discovered oral health was an issue for the Vikings as they aged. By the time Vikings in Varnhem reached 40, losing teeth had become a more significant issue than tooth decay. Many adults among the Viking population in Varnhem lost an average of 6% of their teeth, excluding wisdom teeth. This risk increased with age.

The Mystery of Filed Teeth
Researchers at the Varnhem site also discovered that one individual’s teeth were intentionally filed. However, this discovery of deliberate modification of Viking dentition was not the first.

In a 2005 study by the Department of Archaeological Excavations, National Heritage Board, scientists discovered this same purposeful change in teeth: small horizontal grooves, singular or multiple, on the front upper part of the tooth. The modifications were found on 24 Viking-age men in Sweden and Denmark.4

Regarding the 2005 study, the Swedish researchers suggest that because the grooves are so well made, someone skilled created them. However, the team did not know why these changes were made or how important they were. It is possible that the individuals belonged to a specific group of workers, like tradesmen, or that the grooves were simply decorative.

The reason for filing the teeth found in the Varnhem site is also unknown. It could have been used to identify that individual. An article in Forbes agrees that the deliberately carved grooves on their upper front teeth might have been decorative or indicated social status. However, there is the possibility that Viking men might have filed their teeth in an effort to ease pain.5

Another theory is that filing teeth might have made the Vikings look scarier. In 2009, a Viking burial site was found at the Weymouth Relief Road in Dorset, England. About 50 beheaded bodies were in a mass grave; their heads were carefully placed in a collection at one edge, and one person had intentionally filed teeth. Some suggested that these filed teeth aligned with the Vikings’ fearsome reputation and that their modified anteriors were intended to intimidate others.6

For now, the reason for the filing remains a mystery. However, it boggles one’s mind that anyone would submit to teeth modifications without a good reason—or anesthesia.

Treatment and Prevention Practices Were Present Also
The Vikings had dental treatments for infected teeth, too. For example, some of the molars demonstrated drilling that went from the crown into the pulp, possibly to relieve the pressure from infected teeth.7

The Vikings also used toothpicks. Interestingly, there were fewer cavities on the root surface of teeth that showed abrasions from tooth picking.

According to Popular Science, research on these remains will continue. The next stage will examine any evidence of the bacteria present at the time and how that might have affected oral health.8

Diet and Dental Health in a Viking Village
Swedish Vikings, like those in Varnhem, mostly lived on farms and had a seasonal diet. They ate meats like beef, pork, and mutton, as well as fish, dairy products, bread, porridge, and various vegetables. Hazelnuts, mushrooms, fruits, berries, honey, and malt provided carbohydrates. Beer was a common drink, along with milk and mead. Despite using wells, the water might not have been clean for daily drinking without processing.

Their diet also included barley, wheat, oats, rye, and peas, often prepared as bread, porridge, and soup. The coarse texture of the food contributed to tooth wear. The Vikings at Varnhem and other populations of that time had high starch intake, lacked dental care, and faced food impaction between teeth, explaining the occurrence of cavities.

It is uncertain whether the Vikings had additional cavity-causing foods. Still, various factors like saliva, microflora, hygiene, genetics, culture, and physiology, along with environmental factors like fluoride in drinking water, might have influenced cavity prevalence.

The Odd Connection Between Vikings and the Tooth Fairy

It might surprise you to learn that the tooth fairy and Vikings have more of a connection than you probably thought. However, there is evidence of it in their lore.

In ancient Norse stories, teeth were important. Warriors often wore them around their necks, to bring them good luck in battle. So, Viking warriors would pay children for their teeth (presumably primary teeth the children had shed naturally, although the Vikings’ general reputation as brutish and merciless makes other explanations plausible). This tradition spread across Europe.8

Sometimes, special necklaces were even made from animal teeth. For example, a necklace with a tooth from a brown bear was discovered in Orkney, Scotland, in 1930. The tooth had inscriptions that portended its use in magic, too. It is believed a Viking wore this amulet around 1000 years ago.

Are Vikings That Different From Many Patients In Your Chair?
Chances are that most of your patients did not have a necklace made of teeth that brought them good luck in battle. Nor do they have grooves on their front teeth to decorate or intimidate. However, there are likely some other similarities.

Consider the rate of gum disease today. The prevalence of gum disease is also high in the adult population, and increases with age, which results in tooth loss. Also, there are fewer cavities in adult teeth when flossing and other preventive care measures are in place. Plus, we know that high-starch diets and lack of dental care lead to cavities in today’s patients, too.

Of course, when access to care is available, there is a lot more dentists can do today to treat dental problems than drill a hole in the tooth. This fact, among others, is one of many reasons we should be glad that we do not live in a Viking village in Sweden hundreds of years ago. That and the Wi-Fi was probably terrible.


1. Nield D. Scientists studied 3,000 Viking teeth and discovered surprisingly advanced dentistry. ScienceAlert. January 6, 2024. Accessed February 23, 2024. https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-studied-3000-viking-teeth-and-discovered-surprisingly-advanced-dentistry
2. Bertilsson C, Vretemark M, Lund H, Lingström P. Caries prevalence and other dental pathological conditions in Vikings from Varnhem, Sweden. PLoS One. 2023;18(12):e0295282. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0295282
3. Viking dentistry: unveiling ancient techniques and surprising discoveries. The Archaeologist. December 19, 2023. Accessed February 23, 2024. https://www.thearchaeologist.org/blog/viking-dentistry-unveiling-ancient-techniques-and-surprising-discoveries
4. Arcini C. The Vikings bare their filed teeth. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2005;128(4):727-733. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20164
5. Katz L. Vikings pillaged, conquered and cleaned their teeth with toothpicks. Forbes. December 18, 2023. Accessed February 23, 2024. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lesliekatz/2023/12/18/vikings-1000-years-ago-had-surprisingly-advanced-dental-care/?sh=63a1189869bd
6. Pacey L. Viking teeth offer insight into cultural status. Br Dent J. 2014;216(8):445. doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2014.323
7. Baisas L. Vikings filed their teeth to cope with pain. Popular Science. December 13, 2023. Accessed February 23, 2024. https://www.popsci.com/health/vikings-tooth-problems/
8 Venter J. To war, with teeth and fairies! North Coast Courier. April 23, 2021. Accessed February 23, 2024. https://www.citizen.co.za/north-coast-courier/uncategorized/2021/04/23/to-war-with-teeth-and-fairies/

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