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Sci-Tech

Rare blue pigment on medieval teeth gives peek at women's hidden lives

Blue flecks found on the teeth of an ancient skull suggest women played a larger role as religious scribes than scholars had thought.

The location of the blue pigment in the medieval woman's mouth helped the researchers identify how she likely used it. 

Christina Warinner

Flecks of blue pigment found in the teeth of a woman who lived up to a thousand years ago present a surprising picture of her life as a medieval nun in Europe.

The woman likely painted richly illuminated religious texts used by members of religious institutions and nobles, according to researchers who examined her dental remains.  

The discovery challenges the hypothesis that it was only male monks who produced such ornately decorated manuscripts.

"The early use of this pigment by a religious woman challenges widespread assumptions about ... the gendered production of illuminated texts," reads a new study on the find in the journal Science Advances.

A magnified view of the tiny lapis lazuli particles embedded within a woman's medieval dental calculus.  

Christina Warinner

As part of research looking at health in the Middle Ages, researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and UK's University of York examined dental calculus (essentially plaque that hardens over a lifetime) in remains found at a small women's monastery in central Germany. Located in the municipality of Dalheim, the monastery is believed to have housed approximately 14 religious women from the time it was founded until fire destroyed it.

The teeth of one woman who died between the age of 45 and 60 stood out for the numerous blue bits embedded in their calculus. High-powered microscopes and several spectrographic instruments, which separate light by its wavelengths, revealed the pigment to be made from lapis lazuli stone.

A page from an 11th-century French illuminated manuscript. Women's work on such documents has been largely invisible. 

DeAgostini/Getty Images

"It came as a complete surprise," study co-author Anita Radini, an archaeologist with the UK's University of York, said in a statement. "As the calculus dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles."

During the European Middle Ages, ultramarine blue pigment made from lapis lazuli ground into a powder was a rare commodity mined only in Afghanistan and restricted to use in luxury books of high value and importance. It often appeared alongside other expensive materials, like gold and silver, to add vivid color in artwork -- to religious robes, for example.   

But how did the blue paint get into the woman's teeth? The researchers looked at many scenarios, concluding by the placement of the pigment in her mouth that she was painting with it and licking the end of the paintbrush to keep the tool wet.

As a sign of humility, many medieval scribes and painters didn't sign their work before the 15th century, and that practice especially applied to women, the researchers point out in their paper. The poor visibility of women's work in manuscript production has led many modern scholars to assume women played little role in it.

"Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the way place," said Christina Warinner, a professor at the Max Planck Institute and senior author on the paper.

"This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries -- if we only look."

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