Medieval woman’s art career revealed by blue stains on teeth

12 Janvier, 2019, 23:40 | Auteur: Yves Courtet
  • Lapis lazuli pigment lingered in the dental calculus on the lower jaw of a medieval woman.        Credit Christina Warinner

"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", explains one of the authors, Monica Tromp, a microbioarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute.

During the German woman's lifetime, ultramarine was so rare that it would have been worth its weight, or more, in gold.

The researchers said this challenged long-held beliefs that women had played little role in the European Middle Ages in producing literary and written texts which came largely from religious institutions.

But when modern scientists examined her dug-up remains, they discovered something peculiar - brilliant blue flecks in the tartar on her teeth. The nun, referred to as B78 and who was dug up near a monastery in Germany, was believed to be around 45 to 60 years old when she died and was estimated to be alive from 997 to 1162 A.D.

In recent years, scholars have identified indirect documentary evidence that women participated in making the expensive, handcrafted books that religious communities used before the invention of the printing press.

"Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use", said Alison Beach from Ohio State University, a historian on the project.

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.

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Lovely medieval illuminated manuscripts have for centuries thought to have been the work of male scribes.

Lapis lazuli was costly as it was produced from a single mine in Afghanistan. In fact, some historians now think that women in these regions were working as scribes and illustrators as early as the late 8th century. Grinding lapis lazuli creates clouds of blue dust-a 15th century manual from Italy advises artists to cover mortars used to crush the stone-and could theoretically have entered the woman's oral cavity that way. Few illuminated manuscripts were signed by their creators, but those that have a signature were usually signed by men.

Lazurite crystals from lapis lazuli are ground into a fine powder to produce ultramarine pigment. "The growing economy of 11th century Europe fired demand for the precious and exquisite pigment that traveled thousands of miles via merchant caravan and ships to serve this woman artist's creative ambition".

The study authors acknowledge that there are several ways, aside from the deceased woman having been a scribe or painter, that the lapis lazuli could have ended up in her mouth.

"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", wrote Warinner and her colleagues.

"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", said Christina Warinner, a professor at the Max Planck Institute and senior author on the paper. And the study also shows how spectroscopic methods can help uncover those hidden stories.

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

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