Blue specks reveal a Medieval woman’s life

Tiny flecks of a rare and valuable pigment caught between the teeth of a Medieval female skeleton have provided tell-tale clues to how she lived her life.

The skeleton was unearthed in 2014 from a grave next to a church-monastery complex called Dalheim, in Lichtenau, Germany. The bones were identified as belonging to a middle-aged woman, dubbed B78, aged between 45 and 60, with no obvious signs of disease or injury.

Radio-carbon dating placed her death between 997 and 1162 CE. She is now housed at the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Initial examination of her teeth, looking for microscopic pieces of plant to illuminate her diet, revealed a number of tiny particles of blue material.

Intrigued, a team led by Anita Radini from the UK’s University of York, went in for a closer look. In a paper published in the journal Science Advances, the researchers detail how the woman’s dental plaque and other tooth gunk were first coated in pure water and subjected to ultrasonic frequencies in order to loosen the mysterious blue particles.

Micro-Ramen spectroscopy was then applied to the recovered remnants. The results provided a clear identification. B78’s teeth contained multiple specks of what in Medieval times was an extremely uncommon and hyper-expensive pigment known as ultramarine.

The pigment was made by grinding lazurite crystals from the exotic imported mineral called lapis lazuli. The stone was mined in Afghanistan and brought to Europe. By the time it arrived, it commanded a price higher than gold.

It was greatly prized by scribes and illuminators tasked with copying manuscripts for powerful and wealthy clients. Not only was it a bright and beautiful colour, but it was also highly stable, unlike the other blues present in the palette of the Middle Ages, which were derived from minerals such as azurite and vivianite.

Radini and colleagues discovered that the blue bits in B78’s teeth were encased in various thicknesses of plaque, indicating that they were the result of multiple exposures to ultramarine.

That evidence, together with the location of her gravesite, made her occupation clear. The woman had been an illustrator: a nun living and working at the monastery.

The discovery adds to a growing body of research that is slowly eroding the accepted wisdom that the work of manuscript production in Medieval times was almost exclusively the province of men.

Evidence for female involvement in the process has been challenging to find. Radini and colleagues note that before the fifteenth century, scribes and illustrators very rarely signed their work. Studies of manuscripts recovered from convent libraries dating from the period have found only between 1% and 5% of them unambiguously attributable to female hands.

New techniques, including those used on B78, are gradually changing the picture.

“It has long been assumed that monks, rather than nuns, were the primary producers of books throughout the Middle Ages,” write the researchers.

“Recent historical research, however, has challenged this view, revealing that religious women were not only literate but also prolific producers and consumers of books.”

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