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The most personal personal ornament

Posted by Fotis Ifantidis

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Things can be mixed up during an excavation. Consequently, objects can be easily misplaced during our archaeological taxonomies. This was the case with the human-tooth pendant found at the excavation of the lakeside Neolithic settlement of Dispilio in Greece . During the study of the personal ornaments assemblage of the site I made the quite paranoid decision to check up on all the bags of material found during the twelve-year-old excavation. A decision that, in several ways, could be considered as the excavation of the already excavated. In many cases the results were worth this time-consuming decision. Quite a lot ornaments were found in the bone bags especially. Probably some of the students were not ready enough to distinguish the differences of a ‘worked’ and an ‘unworked’ bone fragment. Maybe it was the muddy condition of the excavation site, lying near the lake of Kastoria, that obstructed their recognition.

A small bag of the bones found on a small excavation cluster contained this human tooth. Mud was covering its upper perforation. A humble perforation, but simultaneously a conscious one. Instantly the tooth was alienated from the bag; cleared; nursed.


Figure 1: The human tooth-pendant (code K0325). Photo: F. Ifantidis. Drawing: I. Zaloshnya/Dispilio Excavations.

Some inevitable details:

The tooth-pendant (figure 1) is a molar of the upper jawbone of an adult, with a perforation made at the upper part of one of its two roots. A groove created between the tooth’s root and the perforation alongside with the smothering of the second root show the intense –and consequently the large time-span use of the tooth as a pendant. The deep dark brown color of the roots is the consequence of post-depositional reasons (humidity, soil pH, etc.), a fact that can be observed on all bone objects found in Dispilio. On the contrary, the lowest part of the tooth remains white, because of the adamantine.

The use of human teeth in jewelry making at Dispilio is affirmed only in one further case – that of a bead. No other examples are known from the Neolithic Aegean or the Balkans. Pendants and other adornment objects made by human teeth are known from many ethnographic sources, e.g. from Oceania . It is worth mentioning that among the Maori, alongside with the use of human teeth as pendants, replications of them where manufactured from shell .

Some improbable details:

If the owner of this pendant could be identified with the ‘owner’ of the tooth, then this would be a unique occasion where a personal object is manufactured by an absolutely ‘personal’ raw material.

Does this make it the most personal personal ornament? Perhaps not. Defining ‘personal’ in the Neolithic still is a difficult task. Besides, this object may have been in a twofold possession. Two owners; one of the actual tooth, and one of the tooth as a pendant. But I have to say that this personal ornament is my personal favorite among the nearly 1.000 beads, bangles, belt-buckles, necklaces and pendants that comprise the Dispilio ornament corpus. That is if I am academically allowed to have likes and dislikes concerning my ‘study material’.

A personal favorite because this tooth can unfold a playground of hypotheses.
This is not just a peculiar pendant. Not just an infrequent Neolithic jewelry article. A prying incorporation of the natural and the technical. The agent and the object. But moreover, the embodied object made by the body of the agent. The dead body part rejuvenated with the opening of a hole. The anxious attempt for the prolongation of the life of a once-vital body part. A graft-less transplantation. A macabre heirloom. A souvenir. Of a loved one. Of an enemy. Of his/her self.


Figure 2: ‘smiles; almost four’ (http://visualizing-neolithic.blogspot.com). Fotis, Litsa, Dimitris on the way back to the excavation lab in August 2005.

I am also dead sure that this dead tooth once was part of a smile (figure 2). Any doubts?


1) More information on Dispilio excavations is available on the official website http://web.auth.gr/dispilio. A portfolio on the excavation is available on http://visualizing-neolithic.blogspot.com.

2) The study of the personal ornaments from the settlement of Dispilio is the outcome of an MA thesis at the Archaeology Department of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (2006) entitled ‘The Personal Ornaments from the Neolithic Settlement of Dispilio, Kastoria: Production & Function of an ‘Aesthetic Toolkit’.

3) See for example: Erikson, J. M. (1969) The Universal Bead. New York: W. W. Nor-ton and Co. and Dubin, L. S. (1987) The History of Beads: From 30.000 BC to the Present. New York: Abradale Press.

4) Skinner, H. D. (1916) Maori necklace and pendants of human and imitation teeth. Man 16: 129-30.


I have several teeth that I have saved over the years. Some of the teeth are mine, some are my wife's and others are my childrens teeth. So these teeth mean a lot to me and I would like to have some of them made into a necklace. I want this necklace to be a beautiful work of art. If anyone can point me in the right direction, it would be appreciated.

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