Blue-flecked teeth suggest Medieval women illustrated religious texts

Jan. 11 (UPI) — Researchers have discovered precious blue pigment in the dental plaque of a woman buried in a Medieval German monastery.

The teeth, flecked with ultramarine, suggest the woman, who died sometime during the 10th century, helped illustrate illuminated religious manuscripts. The discovery marks the first evidence of female involvement in the practice of book illustration.

During the Medieval period, books were primarily the domain of religious institutions — a domain dominated by men. Manuscripts were elaborately illustrated and decorated with ultramarine and gold leaf.

At the time, ultramarine was as precious as gold. The rare pigment was derived from lapis lazuli stones, which were mined from a single source in Afghanistan.

“Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” Alison Beach, historian at Ohio State University, said in a news release.

The blue-flecked teeth belonged to a resident of the ancient monastery. The woman was between 45 and 60 years of age when she died.

Written records of the monastery date to 1244 AD, but the burial remains suggest the monastery was founded several centuries earlier. The institution housed at least 14 women.

Researchers analyzed the several dental records to better understand the monastery’s history.

“It came as a complete surprise — as the dental calculus dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles,” said researcher Anita Radini of the University of York.

Even reading, let alone illustrating, religious manuscripts was a rare privilege. Literary rates were relatively low and access to books was largely restricted to members of religious institutions and the nobility.

The ability to analyze ancient dental calculi, hardened plaque, provided new insights into the creation and transfer of religious knowledge during the Medieval period.

“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,” said Christina Warinner, a researcher at 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.”

Researchers described their discovery this week in the journal Science Advances.

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