Molding Teeth for Fossil Day


The faunal remains we brought. Brochures for some of our other programs are in the background

Yesterday the Alabama Museum of Natural History celebrated National Fossil Day. They had different natural sciences represented at tables with activities, brochures, and candy. The event was largely aimed at children, who are some of the most eager fans of science.  The Office of Archaeological Research was invited to come to the event. Lindsey and I brought some materials from Moundville’s museum and OAR’s teaching collection. We also tested out a new activity that Lindsey came up with.

Fossils are the petrified remains of ancient creatures and plants. They are not the original bone or plant, but a cast that was filled with minerals and hardened into the original shape. This old Bill Nye the Science Guy episode is all about fossils.

When we think of fossils, we usually picture paleontology (a field archaeology regularly gets confused with). Paleontology is the study of ancient animals. Dana Ehret, a paleontologist at the University of Alabama, was actually interviewed about Fossil Day! Watch the video here.

So where does archaeology fit in with Fossil Day? Long before the rise of Homo sapiens, other bipedal primates walked the earth. Their remains are sometimes found as fossils. The Smithsonian has a wonderful collection available online about human fossils.


Because teeth are hard and strong, they preserve well with little degradation. They tell us about the diet of the animal they came from. Think about it: if you find an animal that has huge canines, with one ridge of their molar elongated into a sharp tip, what kind of foods would they likely have eaten? Carnivores have large canines and sharp molars for shearing meat from their kills. Ancient hominin ancestors had massive molars and premolars. These specialized molars helped them chew up fibrous grasses and leaves.

a pictire of two maxilla and teeth. the molars on Paranthropus bosei are four times the size of a human's molars. The difference is very visible and striking.
Paranthropus bosei (left) compared to a human (right). From the above linked article.

To represent this, we had a special new activity to bring with us that Lindsey found on pinterest, which allows students to use modeling materials to make a model of their gums and teeth. We made salt dough, which is essentially homemade Play-doh. Some was dyed pink for the gums and we left the rest of it white for the teeth. Each participant got a paper plate with a blob of each. There were pictures set up to show the arrangement of teeth in the mouth, as well as the function of each tooth type.

There is a ball of white dough next to a rolled out piece of pink dough. There are four sets on white plates.
We laid out our materials, ready for some eager young minds to make molds.

This was our first time presenting the activity, and it was a hit! Nearly every person that came up had fun with it, and we made enough that each student could take their creation home with them. There were adults who also made teeth models, myself included!

Our teeth and gum model. As you can see, we were giving out way too much white dough at first. 

We created a few examples of our own while we manned the booth during the event. The salt dough can be heated up in the oven which will harden and preserve the creation. I took mine home with me so we could test out how well they held up in the oven after heating. To my pleasant surprise, only one tooth got broken. We can now bring these with us the next time as an example.

The models after being heated in the oven. There are a few cracks, but other than that they held up very well. 

We have another event coming up for Halloween: a Haunting at the Museum. During the museum’s most popular event of the year, chemistry students come and do science experiments as “mad scientists,” the museum provides spooky refreshments, and there is a haunted tour of the grounds of the campus.  We are going to bring back the teeth, but put a spooky twist on it. I don’t want to say anymore and ruin the surprise, though. Make sure you come out the the ALMNH for the event and come visit us at our station. It is my favorite museum event of the year!

Here are more pictures of the teeth we molded yesterday:

an up close image of the tooth that got cracked in the heat of the oven. it would have looked like a molar had it turned out correctly. It has lots of cracks and is misshapen.
This is the tooth that got cracked
a sideview and front view of incisors if they were extracted from the gums.
my attempt at incisors with roots
two molars with roots.
Mandibular molars. Anyone know how to distinguish between maxillary and mandibular molars?
two molds of gums and teeth.
These guys need braces!
plates with some of the teeth molds. To the right is the description sheet with all the four teeth types.
This activity can get kind of messy, see all the crumbs on the table?


Want to learn more about fun archaeology lessons? Here’s one that I taught when I was working on the Anthropology is Elemental project as an undergrad at UA. We used air dry clay to make ceramic pottery. The salt dough is a little less messy and way easier to work with.


Salt Dough Recipe

Alabama Museum of Natural History

The Office of Archaeological Research

Paleontology Collections at UA



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