When people imagine scribes and illuminators of Medieval Europe, women with tiny flecks of prized blue pigment in their teeth don’t usually come to mind. And yet, the teeth of a skeleton buried in a modest women's monastery in 1100 CE near Lichtenau, Germany, defies all expectation.
The unmarked grave, labeled B78, hosted a middle-aged woman who lived a life of low physical labor, with no evidence of trauma or infection, and only two molars lost likely due to cavities. The team wasn’t visiting this burial ground to redefine women’s roles in 11th-century rural Germany, they were there to study the plaque preserved in fossilized teeth to learn more about the afflictions and diets of people from this time.
The blue pigment, however, paints a deeper story of this otherwise “unremarkable” skeleton. To delve into this azure mystery, the team took a dental sample from the woman, decontaminated its surface, and disrupted the plaque – also known as dental calculus – via sonication in ultra-pure water. This released fragments and mineral particles, which the researchers slipped under a microscope slide, let dry under controlled conditions, and inspected using light microscopy.
Ultramarine is made by grinding and purifying lazurite crystals from lapis lazuli stones. It “was, by far, the most expensive, reserved along with gold and silver for the most luxurious manuscripts,” noted the researchers. At the time, this pigment produced from lapis lazuli stones was only mined from a single region in Afghanistan and represented a quintessential luxury trade good.
"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," said historian and co-author Michael McCormick of Harvard University.
“Within the context of medieval art, the application of highly pure ultramarine in illuminated works was restricted to luxury books of high value and importance, and only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” wrote the team in the study published in Science Advances.
Even among books in women’s monastery libraries, fewer than 1 percent can be attributed to women before the 12th century. Add to that the modest place of women in monasteries, the tendency of scribes to not sign their work, and the rather small number of surviving books, and you have quite a unique discovery.
The team examined four different scenarios for how this mineral became embedded in the woman’s teeth calculus, which provides "the earliest direct evidence of ultramarine pigment usage by a religious woman in Germany."
"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," added co-first author Monica Tromp, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in a statement.
Other less likely scenarios include the possibility she was employed in the preparation of the materials, she consumed the pigment as some kind of medicine, or she performed devotional duties of illuminated books produced by others.
"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," explained senior author Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries – if we only look."