Rare blue pigment on medieval teeth gives peek at woman's hidden life

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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 use of ultramarine was reserved, along with gold and silver, for the most luxurious manuscripts and the most skilled artists. She was recalling the discovery of the blue flecks in the tooth with a colleague while both were studying other aspects of the remains such as diet and disease.

The discovery is considered the most direct evidence yet of a particular woman taking part in the making of high-quality illuminated manuscripts, the lavishly illustrated religious and secular texts of the Middle Ages.

In 2011, a team of scientists chose 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. 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.

Nevertheless, because signatures are scarce and few of these texts survive, the authors note that "female scribes remain poorly visible in the historical record, and it is likely that most of their scribal work has gone unrecognised".

"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.

Researcher Christina Warinner from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History said this finding from the 11th century was unprecedented in showing more women were literate, educated and encouraged to read at that time.

Mined from a single region in Afghanistan and traded over thousands of kilometres throughout Europe and Asia, this luxury good was enormously expensive, and the luminescent ink was nearly exclusively reserved for the most luxurious manuscripts - not to mention the most exceptional scribes and painters. It was prized for its rich blue colour, and would often be processed into a pigment called ultramarine, which was used in lavish gospels and prayer books produced by hand in European monasteries.

"I was completely surprised it was lapis lazuli", Warinner said. "The growing economy of eleventh-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".

But how did the blue paint get into the woman's teeth? Until the 1400s CE, most scribes and painters didn't sign their work, as a mark of humility, and that has largely erased women from the record, leaving historians to assume all the scribes were men.

No books were preserved from the nunnery at Dalheim, in Germany. New methods in archaeology, like those that allow scholars to identify tiny fragments in dental remains, can supplement the written record, and promise to better illuminate the surprising, hidden dimensions of history.

"Tartar is really incredible", said co-author Christina Warinner, an anthropologist who studies ancient microbiomes at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

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

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