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Mysterious blue pigment in medieval woman’s teeth gives scientists ‘bombshell’ prompt

Flecks of blue found in a 1000-year-old woman teeth have given scientists a surprising look at the medieval woman in the past life.
(Christina Warinner/Max-Planck-Institute for the Science of Human History)

Vivid patches of blue discovered in the teeth of a 1000-year-old skeleton of the medieval era, have given scientists a rare glimpse into an old woman of the past.

The discovery is huge for scientists, who were able to identify the blue particles, such as lapis lazuli — a deep blue, semi-precious stone that was highly valued in the time for the symbolization of royalty and godliness. It is possible the stone was even once placed “in the original breastplate of the High Priest,” according to Crystal Vaults. The particles were occasionally ground and used as pigment.

In the 11th and early 12th century in Europe, lapis lazuli was traded as a luxury good and used in the expensive work of art or literary works.

After careful study of the dug-up of the woman’s dental remains, scientists from the Department of Archaeology at the Max-Planck-Institute for the Science of the Human History and the Laboratory of Microarchaeology at the University of York were able to conclude the woman was probably a medieval nun from Germany, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

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A thousand years ago, the women were not known for writing or painting with the coveted stone, but the absence of the signatures on these pieces of art made it difficult to prove that was the case. However, monks were known as “primary producers” of books in the middle Ages, authors of the recent study indicate. But evidence of a woman with lapis lazuli challenges past performances.

“The beginning of the use of this pigment by a religious woman challenges widespread assumptions about the limited availability in the medieval Europe and the gendered production of illuminated texts,” the study states.

“It’s kind of a bombshell for my field — it is so rare to find material evidence of women, artistic and literary works from the middle Ages.”

— Alison Beach

This evidence shows that women at that time, especially nuns, were not only reading and writing but also productive producers and consumers of books.”

Although her name remains unknown, the woman who was buried in a German cemetery was probably a very skilled artist and writer.

“It’s kind of a bombshell for my field — it is so rare to find material evidence of women, artistic and literary works in the middle Ages,” Alison Beach, professor of medieval history at the Ohio State University and co-author of the study, described the finding to The Associated Press. “Because things are much better documented for the men is encouraged people to think of a male world. This helps us to correct that bias. This tooth opens a window on the activities that the women were also involved.”

At that time, the previous stone was only mined in Afghanistan. So, when it was delivered to places in Europe, such as Germany and Austria, it was probably an encounter with a big price tag. Because of the cost of transport to Europe, ultramarine was reserved for the most important and well-funded artistic projects.

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“If she was with lapis lazuli, she was probably very, very good,” Beach added. “They must be artistically skilled and experienced.”

It is not entirely clear how the mystery woman ended up with flecks of lapis lazuli and her teeth — but scientists have a guess.

Lapis lazuli is a deep blue, semi-precious stone that was highly valued during the middle Ages.
(C. Warinner, M. Tromp, A. Radini/Max-Planck-Institute for the Science of Human History)

“It is plausible to assume that artists should occasionally licked their brushes to make a fine point, a practice that later artist manuals explicitly refer to. In doing so, pigments, such as lapis lazuli, may be included in the oral cavity, where they can be trapped in the dental calculus,” the authors of the study noted.

However, she also added that it was possible that the blue pigment would have been entered by means of pigment production.

Scientists hope that this information gives old woman and the scribes with the recognition that they deserve.

“If you’re someone in the middle Ages, the making of a fine illuminated manuscript, probably the image of a monk — a man,” said Beach, noting that this discovery may help researchers discover more information about the women an important role and contribute to the society in the old days.

The scientists came to the latest discovery by accident. A renovation in 1989, discovered the woman’s grave, together with that of other women who were apparently part of a female religious community to the church. Radiocarbon dating of the skeleton turned out to be the 45 – to 60-year-old woman died between 997 and 1162.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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