Monday, 30 July 2012

Plaque and pollen and proteins, oh my!

Do you often wonder what interesting things might be lurking in your mouth when you don't brush your teeth? 

Well, wonder no more! This very interesting interview in the Guardian with Christina Warinner at the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich discusses exactly that. Warinner talks about deposits of dental plaque (what we call dental calculus) on teeth and how 'pollen, starch grains, animal muscle, bacteria, even a person's DNA' can be found trapped within it.

If you get a chance, you can watch Warinner's TED talk on YouTube (linked below), which is similarly fascinating and explains how teasing out the preserved protein and DNA from dental calculus can be used to 'investigate the relationship between disease, diet and the environment' in the past - and how that knowledge might benefit us in the future.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A Morbid Taste For Teeth

Police in Austria have recently launched a manhunt for a grave-robber with a predilection for removing teeth and dentures from crypts and coffins in the Viennese General Cemetery.

Although grave desecration is not an uncommon crime, the manner in which the perpetrator has gone about doing such a thing is a little less cloak and dagger than normal - he's apparently filmed himself opening up tombs and using pliers to remove the teeth. The composers Johann Strauss and Johannes Brahms are two of the better known victims of this not so covert dental extraction.

The Belgian media have named this individual as Ondrej Jajcaj and it would appear, from a quick perusal of his Facebook account that they might be right. Here he is in his profile picture, with a skull on a stick and a pair of pliers.

Figure 1: Ondrej Jajcaj, courtesy of his own Facebook page.
Yep. Totally normal.
Further examination of his profile reveals a 'miscellaneous' photo folder, similar to one that you or I might have, with the only difference being the sheer quantity of dental artefacts and human remains he has in there... (although it is nice to see that even grave-robbers have a fun side though. Look at him being adorable with that goat!)

Figure 2: A Facebook screen-capture. Note all the dentures and
dental fixtures. They're all pretty vintage, they are.
Wonder where they came from.
Not content with Facebook, I poked a little bit more and found his Youtube account which features a whole host of videos that I can't possibly understand, many of which show him wandering through abandoned graveyards. The video that I found most fascinating however is the ominously titled 'Gold treasure in the woods' which has him beside a tree talking about a box of gold dentures and fillings (see below) and subsequently, fragments of actual human jaw and dental instruments.

Figure 3: A half buried tin of gold teeth.
We all have one of those, right?

Figure 4: I wish I could speak Slovakian, just to
have the faintest idea what's going on here.
On what might be his website there is reference to how Jajcaj wants his amassed collection of historic dental prosthetics to be put in a museum - which he admits might not be easy since the prosthetics were from 'old abandoned graves that he illegally investigated.' His motivation is something to do with Slovakia being a Catholic country and how science triumphs over religion - but I'm not really sure exactly what he's getting at.

Jajcaj's actions are of concern. It is certainly out of the norm behaviourally - how many people regularly take topless pictures of themselves with grave-robbed spoils? But from an archaeological point of view, it is also horrible. The acts of desecration are clearly destructive, ruining the context and meaning of his 'finds'. This makes them completely pointless objects, collected for collections sake alone and at least a little for the simple gratification of an individual who thinks taking pictures like this is appropriate...

Figure 5: So many things wrong with this picture.
Again, courtesy of Ondrej Jajcaj's Facebook.

(But at least I know now that there is someone in the world more fascinated by teeth than me. Phew.)