Fossilised blue tooth shows Medieval women’s involvement in manuscript production

Lapis lazuli pigment lingered in the dental calculus on the lower jaw of a medieval woman.        Credit Christina Warinner

In 2011, a team of scientists chose to study the teeth of a medieval woman who had been buried in Germany sometime between 1000 and 1200 A.D. The researchers were interested in taking a closer look at the woman's dental calculus-plaque that hardens on the teeth during a person's lifetime-in the hopes of learning more about her diet. After enlisting the help of fellow archaeologists, physicists and historians, they were finally able to identify it as ultramarine, a rare pigment made from the semi-precious mineral known as lapis lazuli.

The discovery of semi-precious gems in the teeth of a 1,000-year-old female skeleton proved women were more widely involved in creating medieval manuscripts than previously thought, a group of global historians said yesterday. Along with a growing body of research, a new discovery adds even more evidence that female monastics were not only literate, but were also prolific producers and consumers of books during the Middle Ages.

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.

One of the authors, Ohio State University professor Alison Beach, says it's "kind of bombshell" for the field of medieval history.

Warinner said the woman was thought to be part of a group of about 14 women living at the monastery who were likely to have been wealthy, upper class, and educated. Recent evidence has challenged this assumption: twelfth-century correspondence between a monk and women's monastery, for example, not far from the monastery at Dalheim, has shown that the production of deluxe manuscripts, using expensive materials, was outsourced to women scribes. Radiocarbon dating of the skeleton revealed the 45- to 60-year-old woman died between 997 and 1162. It wasn't hard to find a match; most blue pigments used during the Middle Ages contain metal-usually cobalt, copper, or iron.

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"This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques", says senior author Christina Warinner, also of the Max Planck Institute. "It's like a little time capsule from your life". The only remarkable aspect to her remains was the blue particles found in her teeth. They used what is known as micro-Raman spectroscopy to identify the particles.

Lazurite crystals from lapis lazuli are ground into a fine powder to produce ultramarine pigment. "It's very rare and very expensive".

A magnificent magnified view of lapis lazuli particles embedded within medieval dental calculus.

And that offers a glimpse into the mostly hidden work of "the modest and pious women who quietly produced the books of medieval Europe", as Warinner and her colleagues write. "This study is unprecedented in using archaeological evidence from human remains to suggest a direct connection between an individual and the work of the scribes who created the most sumptuously decorated books".

'It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries - if we only look'.

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