A woman who lived 1,000 years ago has been identified as a likely artist thanks to the blue gemstone residue found in her teeth, according to a study published Wednesday in Science Advances.
The find sheds light on the mysterious role of female scribes and painters in Medieval book production.
The woman died between the ages of 45 and 60, and was buried at the religious complex Dalheim near Lichtenau, Germany, likely in the 11th century. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York examined her remains, especially the dental plaque (also called calculus) on her well-preserved teeth, using sophisticated laboratory spectroscopic tools.
Embedded in the plaque was ultramarine, a pigment derived from the gemstone lapis lazuli, which would have been as valuable as gold during her time.
“The discovery of lapis lazuli in the dental calculus of an 11th-century religious woman is without precedent in the European medieval archaeological record and marks the earliest direct evidence for the use of this rare and expensive pigment by a religious woman in Germany,” the team said in the paper.
So how did the pricey blue hue, sourced solely from Afghanistan during this period, end up on the teeth of a middle-aged woman in a German monastic community? The study’s authors, who were co-led by archeologists Anita Radini and Monica Tromp, suggest four possible explanations.
The most likely story, they said, is that the woman was a painter who licked her brush while working on illuminated manuscripts, causing ultramarine to build up in her plaque. This challenges the assumption that men were the main producers of richly decorated Medieval manuscripts and corroborates recent evidence, in the form of contemporary letters and documents, suggesting that scribes were often women.
“Nearly invisible in the historical record, the women of Dalheim are known to us today nearly exclusively through the archaeological record and a handful of brief textual references,” the team said. “The case of Dalheim raises questions as to how many other early women’s communities in Germany, including communities engaged in book production, have been similarly erased from history.”
Other, less probable ways the woman might have gotten ultramarine on her teeth include preparing the pigment for an artist or using lapis lazuli for medicinal purposes, the team says. Ritual osculation—a fancy word for kissing painted figures in religious texts—could also account for the presence of ultramarine in her teeth, though she lived long before the practice broadly caught on.
“Our results suggest that dental calculus can be used to help identify scribes and artists in the archaeological record and to aid in the historical reconstruction of women’s monasteries and their role in book production,” the authors concluded.
The discovery also confirms the existence of vast trade routes for distributing rare pigments. Ultramarine’s “presence in an otherwise unremarkable women’s community in northern Germany powerfully testifies to the expansion of long-distance trading circuits during the 11th-century European commercial revolution,” the team said.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.