Discarded chewing gum is the bane of city centres throughout the world. However, chewing and dumping gum is not a modern phenomenon. A chunk of chewing gum dated to 3000 BC, replete with teeth impressions, has recently been found during excavations in the Kierikkikangas woods on the west coast of Finland. Subsequent analysis of the gum has indicated that it is a kind of tar made by heating birch bark. After the tar was made, it would have been boiled, and when it cooled, it would solidify. The tar would then be reheated at which point it would soften further. This lengthy process would result in a type of chewing gum.

Today’s sugar-free chewing gum is known to clean teeth but the Neolithic gum seems to have held greater medicinal properties. Professor Trevor Brown, an expert in Heritage and Conservation at the University of Derby, explained: ‘Birch bark tar contains Phenols, which are antiseptic compounds. It is generally believed that Neolithic people discovered that by chewing this stuff it helped alleviate any existing gum disease’. As if this were not enough, it seems that the magical birch bark gum had yet more uses. Thus it was also used as a glue for repairing broken ceramic pots and to unite quartz or slate arrowheads to their shafts. Which is more than can be said for a stick of 21st century Spearmint…


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 26. Click here to subscribe

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