Published: Sat, January 12, 2019
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Medieval woman's art career revealed by blue stains on teeth

Medieval woman's art career revealed by blue stains on teeth

Researchers studied burial remains from a medieval cemetery connected with a women's monastery in Germany, where they believe a women's community existed as early as the 10th century.

Scientific detective work reveals that the blue colour - ultramarine, made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli - indicates she must have been involved in painting the holy books, and licked the end of her paintbrush when using the rare pigment. Because it's only mined in northeast Afghanistan, the mineral had to travel thousands of miles by land and sea through far-flung trade networks to reach Europe.

The use of ultramarine pigment made from lapis lazuli was reserved, along with gold and silver, for the most luxurious manuscripts. "She must have been artistically skilled and experienced". She was 45-60 years old when she died around 1000-1200 AD.

In a study published in Science Advances, an worldwide team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York shed light on the role of women in the creation of such manuscripts with a surprising discovery-the identification of lapis lazuli pigment embedded in the calcified dental plaque of a middle-aged woman buried at a small women's monastery in Germany around 1100 AD.

In 2011, a team of scientists chose to use the fairly new technique of analyzing hardened deposits on the teeth - tartar - to gather information on long-ago diets. Only lazurite doesn't; it's rich in sulfur, instead. Lapis lazuli, which was used to make ultramarine pigments, was highly valuable in medieval Europe. She added: "There is no lapis lazuli in the burial environment". It's rich in iron and magnesium, and it's possible to trace the ratio of those two elements to specific mining spots in northeast Afghanistan. Another possibility is that the woman prepared pigment from lapis lazuli, either for herself or another scribe, and inhaled it, though this is less likely because it's not clear that European artisans had mastered the technique necessary to create bright blue pigment from the rock; they may instead have imported the powder as a finished product.


But blue flecks were embedded in her teeth. But women were not known to be the illustrators of such prized creations. The finding sheds light on the mysterious role of female scribes and artists in medieval book production.

The discovery shows women were producing art in a time when it was considered largely the preserve of men.

For the early Medieval period, when the unnamed illuminator of Dalheim lived and worked, it's a different story. For instance, a 12th-century German letter commissioned a liturgical book to be produced by "sister 'N'". And even at surviving libraries of women's monasteries before 1100 CE, only about one percent of the books can be clearly connected with female scribes and painters.

Brilliant blue flecks found on the teeth of a woman who...

Handsome medieval illuminated manuscripts have for centuries thought to have been the work of male scribes. While Germany is known to have been an active center of book production during this period, identifying the contributions of women has been particularly hard. New methods in archaeology, like those that allow scholars to identify tiny fragments in dental remains, can supplement the written record, and promise to better illuminate the surprising, hidden dimensions of history.

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