When the Colgate company produced the first commercial brand of toothpaste in 1873, they could not have known that they were nearly sixteen centuries late with the discovery. A recipe has been discovered which originated in Egypt in the fourth century CE/AD, and which is in some respects considerably more advanced than what was available a hundred years ago. The papyrus with the recipe on was found in the papyrus collection of the Austrian National Library by Dr Hermann Harrauer, its curator. The papyrus was originally taken from a rubbish tip outside Crocodilopolis - present-day Medinet el-Faiyum - in the 1870s, and purchased in 1878 by the Imperial Habsburg family. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, the family's whole collection of about 180 000 ancient Egyptian documents was transferred to the state collections of the newly-created Republic of Austria. Progress is now being made in deciphering them, but it is a slow process. The recipe itself is written on the back of a letter from one Egyptian monastery to another, leading to speculation that the author was a Christian monk. Although Coptic, a descendent of the language which was written in hieroglyphs, was widely spoken in Egypt at the time, the recipe is written in Greek, which had been the language of government in the kingdom since well before the Roman era. The ink is a simple mixture of soot and gum arabic, but the author clearly knew a fair bit about chemistry. The document uses alchemical abbreviations for its ingredients, and employs very fine measures. The recipe, which follows, is described by its author as producing 'powder for white and perfect teeth', to be mixed with saliva to produce a 'clean tooth paste':

The recipe calls for the ingredients to be crushed and then mixed. The discovery was announced at a conference of dentists in Vienna. One delegate, Dr Heinz Neuman, reported that the existence of such an early and sophisticated dental formula had not been suspected at all. Dr Neuman tried the Egyptian recipe himself, and declared that it was 'not unpleasant'. The resulting paste is painful on the gums - no doubt partly due to the high pepper content - and Dr Neuman said that his gums had bled after he used the paste. 'That's not a bad thing', he added. He also reported the paste leaving a clean and fresh taste in the mouth. Salt is sometimes used as an alternative to toothpaste, and is known to be good for the teeth. The paste's effect on the gums is of more interest, though. Iris flowers have recently been discovered to contain a substance which prevents gum disease, and iris toothpastes are now on the market. But between the time of the recipe being written and the last few years, this property was unknown. This would not be the first example of the ancient Egyptians pre-empting modern medicine. Mouldy bread, containing penicillin, was widely used in anti-bacterial poultices in the time of the pharaohs.

Source: Sunday Telegraph article, January 19, 2003, with supplementary information from my own knowledge of the subject.

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