Losing teeth is a fact of life and aging, so how did the ancients cope?

A ditch in Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, has yielded a common form of early false teeth — an 18th century set of wooden choppers, indicating Japan, like other parts of the world, turned to wood in the days before gold and ceramic crowns.

The highly sophisticated carved wooden dentures found in Yokkaichi indicate elderly people of that time, before modern dentistry, were able to overcome tooth loss and the subsequent difficulty in eating.

The partial plate includes eight life-size teeth. It was carved out of boxwood and measures some 6.2 cm wide, 2 cm high and 5.5 cm deep.

The quality compares favorably with similar wooden teeth discovered elsewhere, demonstrating that the Japanese dental artisans' wooden teeth were among the best in the world, experts say.

Haruhisa Yamaguchi, a dentist and former head of a museum of teeth in Nagoya, said only the wealthiest people would have owned artificial teeth.

"Only high-class samurai and rich merchants could afford artificial teeth. The owner might have dropped and lost (the wooden teeth), but didn't throw them away" in the ditch because they would have been so expensive, Yamaguchi said.

According to Hiroyuki Ito of the culture promotion section of the Mie Prefectural Government, the famous 18th century scholar Motoori Norinaga had artificial teeth.

He was so gratified that he wrote a tanka poem in a letter and sent it to his family, Ito said.