Tar­tar re­veals me­dieval Ger­man nun’s art ca­reer

The News Tribune - - Nation & World - BY CHRISTINA LAR­SON As­so­ci­ated Press

Anita Ra­dini, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of York, in Eng­land, spends a lot of time look­ing at tar­tar. Re­ally old tar­tar.

Tar­tar, or den­tal plaque – that film of bac­te­ria that feels like sweaters on your teeth – con­tains a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about what long-dead in­di­vid­u­als en­coun­tered in their daily lives. Ra­dini has seen all sorts of things trapped in it: food par­ti­cles, tex­tile fibers, DNA, pollen, bac­te­ria and even wings of tiny in­sects.

But sev­eral years ago, when study­ing the den­tal plaque of a nun from me­dieval Ger­many, Ra­dini 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 Warin­ner, group leader of ar­chaeo­ge­net­ics at the Max Planck In­sti­tute for the Sci­ence of Hu­man His­tory in Ger­many. “I re­mem­ber be­ing dumb­founded.”

The sci­en­tists put to­gether a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary team of schol­ars and set out to un­ravel the ori­gins of this blue dust. The re­sults, de­scribed in a paper pub­lished Wed­nes­day in Sci­ence Ad­vances, far ex­ceeded the team’s ex­pec­ta­tions.

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 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 she painted many books in her life­time.

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.

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