Blue par­ti­cles on her teeth re­veal me­dieval nun’s art ca­reer

Tri-City Herald (Sunday) - - Depth - BY CHRISTINA LAR­SON

Anita Ra­dini, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of York, in Eng­land, spends a lot of time look­ing at tar­tar, or den­tal plaque – that film of bac­te­ria that con­tains a wealth of in­for­ma­tion about what long-dead in­di­vid­u­als en­coun­tered in their daily lives: 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 new: par­ti­cles of a bril­liant blue.

Sci­en­tists 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 – 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.

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