Medieval woman’s hidden art career revealed by blue teeth

Beautiful medieval manuscripts are likely to have been the work of nuns NOT monks

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 pigment made from lapis lazuli was reserved, along with gold and silver, for the most luxurious manuscripts.

But Anita Radini, an archaeologist at the University of York in Britain, saw something under the microscope she wasn't expecting: "It looked like nothing I had seen before - bright blue particles, nearly like robins' eggs".

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.

But when modern scientists examined her dug-up remains, they discovered something peculiar - brilliant blue flecks in the tartar on her teeth.

"It's kind of a bombshell for my field - it's so rare to find material evidence of women's artistic and literary work in the Middle Ages", said Alison Beach, a professor of medieval history at Ohio State University.

Anthropologist Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and her colleagues took samples of her fossilized dental plaque, or calculus, in 2014 to check for microscopic remains of plants, which would offer clues about the medieval woman's diet.

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Handsome medieval illuminated manuscripts have for centuries thought to have been the work of male scribes, experts say.

After consulting with a physicist, Warinner learned that the flecks contained two minerals that are only present together in lapis lazuli, a gemstone mined only in a part of northern Afghanistan, and a classic example of a luxury good in medieval Europe and Asia. It was sourced exclusively from the mines of Afghanistan, as was as expensive as gold, which was also used to decorate illuminated manuscripts.

How lapis lazuli got to a religious community in northwest Europe is a story of commerce and empire, likely involving Near Eastern gemstone traders, pigment-makers in a major centre such as Alexandria in Egypt, and Venetian traders who dispersed ultramarine dye throughout Europe. Though many medieval scribes and painters didn't sign their work, it's always been assumed that women played a limited role in producing such highly valued documents. 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. "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", explains historian and co-author Michael McCormick of Harvard University.

"The case of Dalheim raises questions as to how many other early women's communities in Germany, including communities engaged in book production, have been similarly erased from history", the researchers write.

Though her name remains unknown, the woman buried in the German churchyard was probably a highly skilled artist and scribe.

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

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

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