Watch CBS News

Archaeologists uncover golden secret inside mouth of 17th-century socialite "who did not have a good reputation"

Scientists have discovered the long-buried secret of a 17th-century French aristocrat 400 years after her death: she was using gold wire to keep her teeth from falling out.

The body of Anne d'Alegre, who died in 1619, was discovered during an archaeological excavation at the Chateau de Laval in northwestern France in 1988.

Embalmed in a lead coffin, her skeleton — and teeth — were remarkably well-preserved.

At the time the archaeologists noticed that she had a dental prosthetic, but they did not have advanced scanning tools to find out more.

Thirty-five years later, a team of archaeologists and dentists have identified that d'Alegre suffered from periodontal disease that was loosening her teeth, according to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports this week.

"Beyond the only therapeutic care and far from the only coquetry, this study shows also the importance of the appearance for aristocratic women submitted to strong social constraints (like stress or widowhood)," the study's authors wrote. 

A "Cone Beam" scan, which uses X-rays to build three-dimensional images, showed that gold wire had been used to hold together and tighten several of her teeth.

She also had an artificial tooth made of ivory from an elephant — not hippopotamus, which was popular at the time.

The scientists said their paper "provides the first demonstration of a link between a diagnosis and a therapy on an identified individual using new digital technologies used in modern dentistry."

But the ornate dental work only "made the situation worse," said Rozenn Colleter, an archaeologist at the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research and lead author of the study.

The gold wires would have needed repeated tightening over the years, further destabilizing the neighboring teeth, the researchers said.

D'Alegre likely went through the pain for more than just medical reasons. There was huge pressure on aristocratic women at a time when appearance was seen as related to value and rank in society.

Ambroise Pare, a contemporary of d'Alegre's who was the doctor for several French kings and designed similar dental prosthetics, claimed that "if a patient is toothless, his speech becomes depraved," Colleter told AFP.

A nice smile was particularly important for d'Alegre, a "controversial" twice-widowed socialite "who did not have a good reputation," Colleter added.

D'Alegre lived through a troubled time in French history.

She was a Huguenot, Protestants who fought against Catholics in the French Wars of Religion in the late 1500s.

By the age of 21, she was already widowed once and had a young son, Guy XX de Laval.

When the country plunged into the Eighth War of Religion, d'Alegre and her son were forced to hide from Catholic forces while their property was seized by the king.

Her son then converted to Catholicism and went to fight in Hungary, dying in battle at the age of 20.

After being widowed a second time, d'Alegre died of an illness aged 54.

D'Alegre's teeth "shows that she went through a lot of stress," Colleter said.

The researcher said she hopes that the research "goes a little way towards rehabilitating her."

Severe periodontal diseases are estimated to affect nearly a fifth of the world's adults, according to the World Health Organization.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.