Medieval Blue Tooth Reveals Woman Scribe
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For medieval (19459003)
Lapis lazuli pigment enclosed in the dental turkey on the lower jaw of a medieval woman. (Credit: Christina Warinner)
Christians who open an enlightened religious text were like opening a window into the sacred. These lavishly decorated books contained doctrines from the church and helped to deepen believers' beliefs. The luxurious materials used in their creation gleamed in the light and gave an elevated spiritual experience.
A brilliant-blue pigment known as ultramarine, a color often associated with holiness and royalty in art, was reserved for special features of this work of art ̵
1; as the Virgin Mary. Derived from the lapis lazuli stone, which was only used in Afghanistan, the pigment was once considered more valuable than gold.
Now scientists say they have discovered one of the most valued pigments in art history in a peculiar place – in the plaque of a woman buried at a monastery at St. Peter's Church in Dalhaim, Germany about AD 1000-1200 The researchers say the find represents the "earliest direct evidence that religious women in Germany used ultramarine pigment", challenging gender-conceived ideas about the role of women in creating one of the highest art forms in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages, Afghanistan was the only known source of the rare blue stone, lapis lazuli. Lapis lazuli contains various minerals that contribute to its unique appearance, including lazurit (blue), phlogopite (white) and pyrite (gold). ( Credit: Christina Warinner)
"Here we have direct evidence for a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment and in a very incredible place," said Christina Warinner Max Planck Institute for Human History Science in a statement. Warinner is a senior author of a paper describing the results published in
Redefining Women's Work
The Exercise of Lighting – Added Decorated Letters, Borders, and Scenes to Religious Texts – first appeared in the fifth century and peaked in popularity throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Each text was carefully crafted by hand using precious materials such as gold leaf and painted gemstone to decorate animal skin parchment. Producing a single book was a cumbersome process that could take months or even years to complete.
Most illuminated manuscripts belonging to this era were produced by monasteries for liturgical use and libraries. Others were ordered by wealthy patrons for private collections. Large monasteries often had scriptories, a dedicated area for monks who specialized in manuscript production for work.
Since most of the manuscripts of this era were unsigned as humility, it is difficult for scientists to find out who created them. Although not unheard of, it is rare to find illuminated religious texts attributed to women. Less than 1 percent of such manuscripts created before the 12th century have been credited to women. Because of this, modern scientists assume lighting was generally a man's job. However, dental research suggests that nuns also played a prominent role in creating illuminated religious texts. And some, like the woman in Germany, were good enough to trust working with a rare and expensive material like ultramarine.
An example of an illuminated manuscript created in Germany around 1220 AD.
[Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Out of Blue
The discovery is an obvious question: How did paint on the teeth in the first place? In the paper, the researchers describe a number of scenarios. She could have used the pigment for healing purposes. Many ancient world cultures believed lapis lazuli could treat scorpion bites, wounds, eye growth, pustules and herniated membranes. But using lapis lazuli as medicine was not widespread in Germany in the Middle Ages. Scientists say she could unfortunately have used the pigment while performing ritual osculations, a devoted practice involving kissing religious figures in texts. But this worship practice was not very popular until hundreds of years after her death.
A more likely explanation was that airborne lapis lazuli dust blew in her mouth while she was preparing pigment. Another likely scenario was that some paint entered the mouth while licking the ends of brushes, a technique that would create a better point for detailed work.
The researchers, who originally analyzed the woman's tartar as part of a diet study, made the discovery by chance.
"It came as a complete surprise – when the rain dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles," co-author Anita Radini of the University of York said in a statement.
Scientists said the woman was middle-aged at the time of her death. Her remnants did not point to specific pathologies, trauma or infections. An absence of occupational skeletal stress suggests that her life was free from hard work. She may have been educated and came from nobility, like most other women in the abbey church in Germany at this time.
Something else is known about how life could have been for the woman and the 14 others who lived at the monastery before it was destroyed by a fire in the 14th century. But researchers say their approach could help identify more women hidden in history.
"This woman's story could have been hidden forever … it doubts me how many other artists we can find in medieval cemeteries – if we only see it" Warner said.