What we thought we knew about gender in Ancient Egypt could be wrong – and it all comes down to a bunch of pearly whites.
According to a study published in the journal Bioarchaeology of Marginalized People, the teeth of a 4,000-year-old woman show distinct patterns suggesting she was a craftsperson. Many have assumed this profession was restricted to men at the time.
The oddity was discovered during a routine analysis of a collection of bones held at the University of Alberta. Like others in the collection, those of the woman were excavated in Mendes, an ancient Egyptian city in what is now Tell El-Ruba. But while the others were given a burial style that suggests they were middle class, she was found in a more elaborate wooden coffin, complete with a bronze mirror, alabaster vessels, and cosmetics.
But that was not all that was unusual.
Sixteen of the 24 teeth found in her grave were marked with distinct patterns of wear and tear. Of those, 14 displayed flat abrasions and the remaining two presented wedge-like impressions.
While teeth naturally change over time through the simple act of chewing, these patterns were different, the study authors say. Nor is it likely that these were deliberate modifications – some cultures do "customize" their teeth (for example, by shaping or removing them) but it is not a practice associated with ancient Egypt. Rather, they think it is the wear and tear of someone who performed (toothy) repetitive actions as part of their day job.
"A number of ethnographic accounts record the use of the anterior teeth as aids in the preparation of vegetable fibers for basketry, cordage, and other products," study authors Nancy Lovell and Kimberley Palichuk write. In this case, they say that there is a strong argument in favor of vegetable fiber in Cyperus papyrus being responsible for her dental markings. Using teeth to remove its outer rind would leave abrasions, while tiny silica particles would scrape the tooth enamel, creating unusual patterns in the process.
These teeth may have some "important implications" in terms of what we know about the careers and professions of ancient Egyptian women, Lovell and Palichuk say.
It contrasts, they add, with previous research based on the artistic pieces commissioned by men, which suggest there were just seven professions available to women (priestess, midwife, singer, dancer, mourner, musician, and weaver). And instead highlights "the professionalization of women that is not registered in the documents and tomb scenes that are created by men and reflect male interests and biases".
"I think we can say it adds to a growing amount of evidence that the women of ancient Egypt played a far more active role in economic life than has traditionally been acknowledged, something which equates with their role within society as a whole," Professor Joann Fletcher of the University of York, UK, who was not involved in the research, told IFLScience.
Adding that while the most common female title ("Lady of the House") involved the running of the domestic sphere, women were portrayed publically at every level of society and treated as independent citizens by law. There is even evidence to suggest they received the same payments and privileges for completing a job as their male colleagues.
"Traditionally, women looked after the home," Dr Joyce Tyldesley, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, UK, told IFLScience, but that duty could have involved tasks like spinning and selling produce at the market. There is also archaeological evidence of women baking, brewing, and weaving in what looks like "larger-than-domestic contexts".
"I would not be at all surprised if a family who were connected with the reed industry involved the whole family – male, female, and child labor. I would class them all as craft workers," added Tyldesley.