Iron dental tool
By Natasha Walsh
The object is an iron dental tool known as a pelican. It consists of a metal bar which is rounded into a flat semi-circular shape at both ends. From the centre are attached two arms which move on a central pivot. These arms are clawed at the ends. The name pelican is derived from the idea that the object resembles a pelican’s beak.
The original register entries for this object read:
Wilde catalogue: “Ancient Toothdrawing instrument. From Monaincha, Co. Tipperary. Dawson's No. 1544.”
Wakeman catalogue: “Miscellaneous remains chiefly of Iron not known to be from Crannogs continued. 81. Handle of iron, flat semicircular expansions at each end, and with two hooks attached to its centre by a pivot. This object was doubtlessly used for lifting purposes. Locality uncertain. Length four inches. Longer hook two inches and three quarters; the shorter two inches and a half.”
When was it used?
Pelicans were used from the 14th Century through to the 18th Century.
How does it work?
This tool is used to extract teeth. The way it works is by holding the curved end against the tooth with the claw hooked over it. The curved end was then used as leverage with the claw to pull out the offending tooth. This was not always effective however and could in fact loosen and damage neighbouring teeth during the process. It would have been incredibly painful!
Where did it come from?
There are two catalogue entries for this object one from William Wilde and the other from William Wakeman. Wilde’s catalogue states that the tool is from Monaincha, Co. Tipperary but unfortunately gives no further details as to where in Monaincha the object was sourced. Wilde also states that the tool came into the museum via the Dawson Collection: this means that the object was one of the thousands of objects that were acquired by the Royal Irish Academy shortly after the death of Dean Henry Richard Dawson of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in 1840. The Academy’s collections were subsequently incorporated into the collection of the National Museum. Wakeman’s catalogue does not specify the find place or origins of this object and in fact he fails to identify it as a dental tool.
Why doesn’t Wakeman know what this is?
In the original register entries above you’ll notice that in the Wakeman catalogue this object was misidentified by William Wakeman who suggests that it may have been used for lifting. People make mistakes, even respected academics writing catalogues! In this instance due to the movable hooked arms on the object Wakeman could perhaps be forgiven for this mistake, particularly when noted that William Wilde (author of the Wilde catalogue) was a surgeon and as such by comparison had a far superior knowledgeable of medical apparatus.
This object is not on public display as it is part of the Museum’s reserve collections. If you would like to learn more about health care in Medieval Ireland, you can see related objects in the Medieval Ireland exhibition located on the 1st floor of the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology on Kildare Street.
You can also read more about this object on the UK Science Museum website.