In 2011, a team of scientists decided 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. But when they examined the calculus under a microscope, they discovered something entirely surprising: as the plaque dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles.
In a new study published in Science Advances, the researchers reveal that they have identified the blue pigments as lapis lazuli, a brilliant blue rock that, in the medieval era, was used to color illuminated manuscripts. And the team has a theory about how fragments of this precious stone ended up in the woman’s mouth: She was, they suggest, a highly skilled painter tasked with illustrating luxurious texts, who repeatedly licked the tip of brushes that were saturated with lapis lazuli pigments.
“B78,” as the anonymous skeleton is known, was unearthed from a cemetery associated with a woman’s monastery at the site of Dalheim, in Germany. It is not known precisely when the monastery was founded, but scholars believe that it housed groups of 14 women for several hundred years, until it was destroyed by a fire in the 14th century. B78 was between 45 and 60 years old when she died, and her remains showed no signs of physical trauma or infection.
The discovery of the lapis lazuli pigments, which were identified with such advanced techniques as energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and micro-Raman spectroscopy, marks the first time that a medieval artist has been identified based on skeletal remains, and offers stunning insight into the role that women played in producing illuminated texts.
“It’s kind of a bombshell for my field,” Alison Beach, a professor of medieval history at Ohio State University and co-author of the new study, tells Christina Larson of the Associated Press. “[I]t’s so rare to find material evidence of women’s artistic and literary work in the Middle Ages.”
Prior to the 15th century, scribes rarely signed their names on their work—it was a sign of humility, especially for women. Even among books that were housed in women’s monasteries, less than 15 percent bear women’s names, according to the study authors. So for many years, historians have assumed that monks, and not nuns, were the primary creators of literary texts.
But recent research has shown that this was not the case. “Although surviving examples of these early works are rare and relatively modest, there is a growing body of evidence that women’s monasteries were actively producing books of the highest quality by the 12th century,” the study authors write. Nuns copied many of the 200-odd books that survive from the monastery of Admonst in Salzburg, for instance. More than 4,000 books dating between the 13th and 16th centuries—a period that offers more complete records than the time in which B78 lived—have been attributed to over 400 women scribes.
The blue particles embedded in B78’s teeth offer further evidence to suggest that women were involved in the highest levels of manuscript production. Lapis lazuli, which was used to make ultramarine pigments, was highly valuable in medieval Europe. It was sourced exclusively from the mines of Afghanistan, as was as expensive as gold, which was also used to decorate illuminated manuscripts. Because lapis lazuli was so precious and so rare, “[o]nly scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” says Beach in a statement.
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. Among historic Mediterranean and Islamic cultures, lapis lazuli was consumed as a medical treatment, the authors note, though there is little evidence to suggest that this practice existed in medieval Germany. Kissing painted images of devotional figures was once common in Europe, but is only attested to some three centuries after the woman died. It is also possible that the woman was involved in pigment production, rather than painting. 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.
But based on the way the pigments were distributed in the woman’s mouth, the study authors conclude “that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” says study co-author Monica Tromp of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Licking brushes may have been common practice among painters of that time; later artist manuals suggest doing so to make a fine point out of the bristles.
The study’s findings are remarkable not only because they suggest that women were involved in the production of expensive illuminated manuscript, but because they offer insight into the life of an anonymous woman whose name has been lost to history. And the study also shows how spectroscopic methods can help uncover those hidden stories.
"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 makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries—if we only look.”