Tartar reveals medieval German nun’s art career
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.