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The Ancient History of Grills

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As ever-present as grills may seem today, mouth bling isn’t new. Actually, grills have been appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout human history in fits and spurts as civilizations have risen and fallen around the world.

“We about to start an epidemic with this one,” Jermaine Dupri announces at the beginning of Nelly’s 2005 music video for “Grillz,” the St. Louis rapper’s anthem in honor of gold- and diamond-studded teeth. Nelly’s impact and relevance might have faded over the past decade, but this Billboard Hot 100–topping hit was prophetic.

The video, which featured more than 70 close-up grill shots, introduced mainstream America to lavish dental ornamentation. It captured the moment when bejeweled dental prostheses entered the American zeitgeist.

It was an era when Johnny Dang, the Vietnamese-born, Houston-based jeweler to the stars who made a cameo in “Grillz,” was selling more than 400 decorative teeth coverings a day for at least $500 a pop. Visit here; blingcartel.com

Nine years and a Great Recession have passed since “Grillz” first hit the airwaves, but Americans of all socioeconomic situations are still flashing expensive mouth jewelry. Of course, MCs like A$AP Rocky and the Flatbush Zombies have carried on the tradition of wearing and rapping about gold teeth.

But grills have also maneuvered their way over to the pop charts. In the past few years, we’ve seen them adorn the teeth of Katy Perry, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, and Beyoncé. The accessory has even appeared on the runways of New York and Paris Fashion Week and in the pages of Vogue.

Yet, as ever-present as grills may seem today, mouth bling isn’t new. And it wasn’t new when Nelly started “an epidemic,” either. Actually, grills have been appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout human history in fits and spurts as civilizations have risen and fallen around the world.

Tracing their story reveals threads of ancient misogyny, class warfare, and lost scientific studies and artifacts.

Anyone who’s had a passing interest in the history of the grill has probably come across the dozens of shady Google search results that claim that the earliest gold dentures were made by ancient Egyptians, who used them as a form of dental care. Although this concept is pretty pervasive, it’s just not true based on what we know.

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“The only acceptable evidence is that revealed in the skulls themselves,” writes Dr. F. Filce Leek in his 1967 study “The Practice of Dentistry in Ancient Egypt.” Leek was part of the Manchester Mummy Project, which CT-scanned more than a dozen excavated mummies for a peek inside the wrapping.

He found teeth so concave with cavities that he concluded many people likely died from tooth disease. Archaeologists have discovered Ancient Egyptian writings on dental procedures, but “no tooth with gold or metal,” Dr. Leek writes, quoting fellow archaeologist Sir Marc Armand Ruffer. Not in pharaohs or their slaves.

People mistakenly think grills originate in ancient Egypt because archaeologists in the early 20th century found two teeth woven together by a gold wire that dated back to about 2,500 BC in Giza.

Archaeologists first claimed the teeth were wired while the person was still alive, but upon further speculation, Leek found it more likely that that the teeth fell out of the Egyptian’s head and he started wearing them on a gold wire around his neck.

Leek suggests this man was buried with these teeth because of the Egyptian custom to be put to rest alongside items needed for the afterlife. So what is commonly thought to be the first grill was probably just a gold chain.

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