Paint specks in tooth tartar illuminate a medieval woman’s artistry

It wasn’t just monks who scribed and illustrated elaborate religious texts

jaw of medieval woman

TOOTH PAINT  An expensive blue pigment found in these tartar-encrusted teeth from a medieval woman are helping to rewrite the story of who created richly illuminated religious books.

Christina Warinner

Remnants of a rare pigment found in dental tartar of a woman buried around 1,000 years ago at a medieval monastery indicate that she may have been an elite scribe or book painter.

These pigment flecks come from ultramarine, a rare blue pigment made by grinding lapis lazuli stone imported from Afghanistan into powder, say archaeologist Anita Radini of the University of York in England and her colleagues. Elaborately illustrated religious manuscripts produced during Europe’s Middle Ages, from around 1,600 to 500 years ago, were sometimes decorated with rare and expensive materials, including ultramarine and gold leaf. The new discovery, reported January 9 in Science Advances, supports recent historical research suggesting that it wasn’t just monks who prepared these richly decorated books. Nuns did, too.

BOOKED UP A new study suggests that women in religious communities played an unappreciated role in producing elaborate medieval manuscripts, represented here by a page from a German translation of the Bible dating to the 1390s. Stullkowski/Wikimedia commons
The presumed female book painter was identified as part of a study examining the chemical makeup of dental plaque from individuals buried next to a women’s monastery at Germany’s Dalheim site. Radiocarbon dating places the woman’s death at between roughly 1,000 and 800 years ago.

Based on the distribution of pigment in her mouth, the woman was probably licking the end of a brush in order to create a fine point while painting, the researchers say.

Other scenarios are possible, but less likely, they say. The woman might have prepared paint and pigment for herself or other bookmakers, consumed powdered lapis lazuli for its alleged healing powers or ritually kissed painted figures while reading from prayer books, a practice known from the late Middle Ages.

No books survive from the Dalheim monastery, which was destroyed by a fire in the 14th century, and little is known about its former residents. But the finding suggests that tartar analyses can help to identify other people who produced books in medieval European religious communities.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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