• A Blue Pigment Suggests that Women of That Time Were More Involved Than Thought in Producing Religious Texts

A Blue Pigment Suggests that Women of That Time Were More Involved Than Thought in Producing Religious  Texts

A Woman’s Work Was Sometimes Blue by Steph Yin


A rare blue pigment, discovered on the teeth of a Medieval nun, suggests that women of that time were more involved than thought in producing religious texts.

[Photo caption below photo of teeth]
Blue flecks of lapis lazuli in the fossilized plaque of a 10th-century nun. Researchers believe they suggest the woman likely was an accomplished painter and manuscript illuminator, and used her teeth to shape her paintbrush.

…But several years ago, when studying the dental plaque of a nun from medieval Germany, Dr. Radini [Anita Radini, an archaeologist at the University of York, in England, who studies ancient tartar (dental plaque) on teeth] saw something entirely new: particles of a brilliant blue.

She showed the findings to Christina Warinner, another tartar expert, who was shocked.

“They looked like little robins’ eggs, they were so bright,” said Dr. Warinner, group leader of archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. “I remember being dumbfounded.”

…The particles, it turned out, were of ultramarine pigment, the finest and most expensive of blue colorings, made of lapis lazuli stone from Afghanistan. The German nun with the pigment in her teeth — B78, as she is known in the archaeological literature — was likely a painter and scribe of religious texts. And she must have been highly skilled to have been entrusted with such a rare powder, the researchers said.

The finding upends the conventional assumption that medieval European women were not much involved in producing religious texts. “Picture someone copying a medieval book — if you picture anything, you’re going to picture a monk, not a nun,” said Alison Beach, a historian at Ohio State University, and an author on the study.

The skeleton of B78 dates to sometime between 997 and 1162 A.D. The nun was probably 45 to 60 years old when she died, and was buried in an unmarked grave near a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. Historians know little else about the site, because almost all of it was destroyed by a fire in the 14th century.

Dr. Radini first noticed traces of blue when she immersed a sample of B78’s tartar in a weak acid solution. Scientists use this method to dissolve calcified tartar, so they can study any remaining food, pollen or other particles.

…At the time, blue pigment “was as, or more, valuable than the gold applied to manuscripts,” Dr. Beach said.

Only five percent of the lapis lazuli used in the production process is converted into pigment, and the material would have had to travel through thousands of miles of trade routes to reach Europe.

The pigment likely ended up on the woman’s teeth as she used her mouth to shape her paintbrush.

The researchers found ultramarine layered throughout B78’s dental plaque, which suggests that she painted many books in her lifetime.

“We struggle to find sources reflecting women’s lives in the Middle Ages that aren’t filtered through men’s experiences or opinions about what women’s lives should have been,” Dr. Beach said. “Now, we have a direct piece of evidence about what this woman did on a day-to-day basis — all because they didn’t brush their teeth.”

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