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900 years ago she was artist – we know this because she has bits of blue stone in her teeth

A team of researchers examining the remains of a woman buried around the year 1100 AD have – to their surprise – discovered dozens of tiny bits of blue stone in her teeth. They soon realized that she was likely a painter of illuminated medieval manuscripts.

The discovery was made by an international team of researchers, including those from the University of York and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. They had been examining the remains of individuals who were buried in a medieval cemetery associated with a women’s monastery at the site of Dalheim in Germany. Few records remain of the monastery and its exact founding date is not known, although a women’s community may have formed there as early as the 10th century AD. The earliest known written records from the monastery date to 1244. The monastery is believed to have been home to about 14 religious women from its founding until its destruction by fire following a series of 14th century battles.

One woman in the cemetery was found to have about 100 flecks of blue pigment embedded in the dental plaque of her teeth. She was 45-60 years old when she died around 1000-1200 AD. She had no particular skeletal pathologies, nor evidence of trauma or infection. The only remarkable aspect to her remains was the blue particles found in her teeth. “It came as a complete surprise – as the calculus dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles,” recalls Anita Radini of the University of York. Careful analysis using a number of different spectrographic methods – including energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDS) and micro-Raman spectroscopy – revealed the blue pigment to be made from lapis lazuli.

These are foundations of the church associated with a medieval women’s religious community at Dalheim, Germany. Photo by Christina Warinner

Ultramarine pigment is made from the precious stone lapis lazuli, which was only mined in Afghanistan in the medieval period. The pigment was used in paintings and to decorate illustrations in luxury books of the highest quality, only the most skilled scribes and painters would have been entrusted with its use.

“We examined many scenarios for how this mineral could have become embedded in the calculus on this woman’s teeth,” explains Radini. “Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” states Monica Tromp of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, another author of the study. Repeatedly licking a brush into a fine point was done in order to paint intricate details on manuscripts – a technique referred to in contemporary artist manuals.

The unexpected discovery of such a valuable pigment so early and in the mouth of an 11th century woman in rural Germany is unprecedented. While Germany is known to have been an active center of book production during this period, identifying the contributions of women has been particularly difficult. As a sign of humility, many medieval scribes and painters did not sign their work, a practice that especially applied to women. The low visibility of women’s labor in manuscript production has led many modern scholars to assume that women played little part in it.

The findings of this study not only challenge long-held beliefs in the field, they also uncover an individual life history. The woman’s remains were originally a relatively unremarkable find from a relatively unremarkable place, or so it seemed. But by using these techniques, the researchers were able to uncover a truly remarkable life history.

This is a magnified view of lapis lazuli particles embedded within medieval dental calculus. Photo by Monica Tromp

Whoever she was it is unlikely that any of her works survive. With all of the surviving manuscripts produced at the monastery consumed by flames in a fire which ravaged the building in the 14th century, the study also represents the sole surviving evidence of female scribal activity at the site.

“Early scribes and illuminators are largely anonymous and invisible because before the 15th century they rarely signed their work,” Anita Radini explained. “However, the commissioning of talented female scribes to produce manuscripts using expensive and sophisticated methods has precedent, with historical sources from Germany recording the commissioning of a luxury manuscript to be produced by nuns.

“In Germany, women’s monastic communities were made up of noble or aristocratic women, many of whom were highly educated. These women would have lived lives free from hard labour and our skeleton fits this profile as it belonged to a middle-aged woman and showed no sign of occupational stress.”

During the European Middle Ages, Afghanistan was the only known source of the rare blue stone, lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli contains different minerals that contribute to its unique appearance, including lazurite (blue), phlogopite (white), and pyrite (gold). Photo credit: Christina Warinner

To identify this vibrant blue pigment trapped in the woman’s plaque, physicists and archaeologists at the University of York used a range of light and electron microscopy techniques as well as spectroscopy, including a technique called Raman Spectroscopy.

Co-author of the study, Dr Roland Kröger, from the Department of Physics at the University of York, said, “Raman Spectroscopy is a powerful non-destructive tool for characterising mineral pigments and other materials with high precision. Using the scattering of laser light it revealed the crystal structure of Lazurite, the bright blue component of Lapis Lazuli, and the presence of further mineral particles that might be used in the future to learn more details about the geographical origin of the Lapis Lazuli.

“The distance over which the pigment travelled to be found in this skeleton in Germany shows the scale and global nature of the medieval trade in colours. Using this method to examine dental calculus offers an unprecedented level of insight into the lifestyles and working conditions of our ancestors and has prevented this woman’s involvement in the creation of manuscripts from being erased from history. It offers great promise for illuminating the lives of countless other women who quietly and anonymously produced many of the books of medieval Europe.”

The article “Medieval women’s early involvement in manuscript production suggested by lapis lazuli identification in dental calculus” is published in the journal Science Advances. Click here to read the article.

Lapis lazuli pigment, also known as ultramarine, was among the most expensive artist materials of the European Middle Ages. Ground and refined from lapis lazuli stone, the pigment was used to depict the heavens and the robes of the Virgin Mary. Image credit: The Borthwick Institute, University of York.

The study was carried out by an international team of researchers from the University of York and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, alongside researchers from institutions in Italy, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Switzerland.

Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author of the paper, sums up the remarkable discovery: “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. 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.”

Top Image: Dental calculus on the lower jaw a medieval woman entrapped lapis lazuli pigment. Photo credit: Christina Warinner



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