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Shell Shocked: The Search for Ancient Dentures

By Staff | Aug 12, 2011

Despite the high temperatures and the seasonal humidity Sanibel is one busy place this summer. There are countless environmental activities taking place here ranging from restoring the local supply of bay scallops to preserving the habitat of mollusks.

We are so outdoorsy and environmentally oriented that a new group of explorers has embarked on what may be the most extraordinary initiative of all the search for centuries’ old dentures that have made their way into our waters.

Our local conservation groups have run out of sea life, fossils and artifacts to search for. Various groups have claimed these categories as their own. So a new group has come along with the blessing of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to search for another rare and undiscovered artifact — human dentures.

To understand why the search for human dentures is vital we must understand their history. The first dentures in recorded history were introduced to mankind around 700 BC by Etruscans in northern Italy who made dentures out of human or animal teeth. The invention of dentures replaced the barbaric practice of “gumming” a primitive process for hardening gums following teeth extraction. Gumming was done by vigorously chewing on rocks so that the gums became tough and course.

Gummers were thus able to chew on meat without teeth because their gums became as hard as the rocks they trained on. This method of eating was known as “slobbering” and allowed primitive man to have his steak and eat it too.

The early Etruscan dentures deteriorated quickly but they were easy to produce and remained popular until the mid-19th century. The practice of gumming began to fade from our culture and those who practiced it were often ostracized from society or arrested for being ugly.

Alexis Duchteau made the first porcelain dentures around 1770. In 1791 the first British patent was granted to Nicholas Dubois De Chemant, previous assistant to Duchateau, for “De Chemant’s Specification”, “a composition for making artificial teeth. For the first time, single, double or rows of teeth could be manufactured. These dentures came in complete sets with springs for fastening. De Chemant also devised a method for inserting these dentures in a way that made them look more natural than anything that had ever been invented. He began selling his wares in 1792 with a unique porcelain paste.

The technology continued to improve. In London in 1820, Claudius Ash, a goldsmith by trade, began manufacturing high-quality porcelain dentures mounted on 18-carat gold plates.

Ash’s dentures business did so well that he decided to export his exclusive dentures to the U.S. He built his own frigate, an ocean going vessel, which he named “Bite Size” and placed 10,000 dentures aboard to sell in the new land.

To his horror the frigate was struck by lightning just as it approached the posh Florida coast and sank taking all its modern dentures with it to the bottom of the sea. Ash’s dentures were scattered throughout Florida’s waters.

During the past three hundred years, several Ash dentures washed ashore to the delight of local denture historians. These occasional findings prompted the current group of Sanibel denture archaeologists to organize a more intensive effort to locate and restore as many of Ash dentures as they can find. These dentures are considered as valuable as rare shells. Not only do they have historic value but they can also be worn again.

The effort to locate these rare dentures is being undertaken with limited resources. Volunteers are being invited to join this elite group of denture explorers. Deep-sea diving experience is required. If you’ve dabbled in the search for scallops, mollusks, algae, old Rudy Vallee records and toad fossils you’re ready for new archaeological excitement. Discovering the dentures once fitted for an 18th century Duke can be an exhilarating experience.