Vitruvius (iv. 2) states that the dentil represents the end of a rafter (asser); and since it occurs in its most pronounced form in the Ionic temples of Asia Minor, the Lycian tombs and the porticoes and tombs of Persia, where it represents distinctly the reproduction in stone of timber construction, there is but little doubt as to its origin. The earliest example is that found on the tomb of Darius ,c. 500 B.C., cut in the rock in which the portico of his palace is reproduced. Its first employment in Athens is in the cornice of the caryatid portico or tribune of the Erechtheum (480 B.C.). When subsequently introduced into the bed-mould of the cornice of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates it is much smaller in its dimensions. In the later temples of Ionia, as in the temple of Priene, the larger scale of the dentil is still retained.
As a general rule the projection of the dentil is equal to its width, and the intervals between to half the width. In some cases the projecting band has never had the sinkings cut into it to divide up the dentils, as in the Pantheon at Rome, and it is then called a dentil-band. The dentil was the chief decorative feature employed in the bedmould by the Romans and the Italian Revivalists. In the porch of the Studion cathedral at Constantinople, the dentil and the interval between are equal in width, and the interval is splayed back from top to bottom; this is the form it takes in what is known as the Venetian dentil, which was copied from the Byzantine dentil in Santa Sophia, Constantinople. There, however, it no longer formed part of a bed-mould: its use at Santa Sophia was to decorate the projecting moulding enclosing the encrusted marbles, and the dentils were cut alternately on both sides of the moulding. The Venetian dentil was also introduced as a label round arches and as a string course.