Me­dieval woman’s hid­den art ca­reer re­vealed by blue teeth

Yuma Sun - - DESERT LIFE -

WASH­ING­TON — About 1,000 years ago, a woman in Ger­many died and was buried in an un­marked grave in a church ceme­tery. No record of her life sur­vived, and no his­to­rian had rea­son to won­der who she was. But when mod­ern sci­en­tists ex­am­ined her dug-up remains, they dis­cov­ered some­thing pe­cu­liar — bril­liant blue flecks in the tar­tar on her teeth.

And that has cast new light on the role of women and art in me­dieval Europe.

The blue par­ti­cles, it turns out, were lapis lazuli, a semi-pre­cious stone that was highly prized at the time for its vivid color and was ground up and used as a pig­ment.

From that, sci­en­tists con­cluded the woman was an artist in­volved in cre­at­ing il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts — a task usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with monks.

The dis­cov­ery is con­sid­ered the most di­rect ev­i­dence yet of a par­tic­u­lar woman tak­ing part in the mak­ing of high-qual­ity il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts, the lav­ishly il­lus­trated re­li­gious and sec­u­lar texts of the Mid­dle Ages. And it cor­rob­o­rates other find­ings that sug­gest fe­male ar­ti­sans were not as rare as pre­vi­ously thought.

“It’s kind of a bomb­shell for my field — it’s so rare to find ma­te­rial ev­i­dence of women’s artis­tic and lit­er­ary work in the Mid­dle Ages,” said Ali­son Beach, a pro­fes­sor of me­dieval his­tory at Ohio State Univer­sity. “Be­cause things are much bet­ter doc­u­mented for men, it’s en­cour­aged peo­ple to imagine a male world. This helps us cor­rect that bias. This tooth opens a win­dow on what ac­tiv­i­ties women also were en­gaged in.”

Though her name remains un­known, the woman buried in the Ger­man church­yard was prob­a­bly a highly skilled artist and scribe.

Ul­tra­ma­rine, as the pow­dered form of lapis lazuli is known, was the finest and most ex­pen­sive pig­ment in me­dieval Europe, more valu­able even than gold. The stone came from a sin­gle source: the mines of Afghanistan. Be­cause of the cost of car­ry­ing it to Europe, ul­tra­ma­rine was re­served for the most im­por­tant and well-funded artis­tic projects.

“If she was us­ing lapis lazuli, she was prob­a­bly very, very good,” said Beach, co-au­thor of a re­port pub­lished Wed­nes­day in the jour­nal Sci­ence Ad­vances. “She must have been ar­tis­ti­cally skilled and ex­pe­ri­enced.”

The re­searchers pored over old paint­ing man­u­als to form a hy­poth­e­sis as to how the woman got blue flecks in her teeth: She pe­ri­od­i­cally licked the tip of her brush to bring it to a fine point for de­tailed work.

“If you pic­ture some­one in the Mid­dle Ages mak­ing a fine il­lu­mi­nated man­u­script, you prob­a­bly pic­ture a monk — a man,” Beach said. That’s in part be­cause monas­ter­ies kept bet­ter records than fe­male re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions did, and be­cause men were more likely to sign their works, she said.


THIS UN­DATED PHOTO re­leased by the Max Planck In­sti­tute for the Sci­ence of Hu­man His­tory in Jena, Ger­many, shows the den­tal cal­cu­lus on the lower jaw where a me­dieval woman en­trapped lapis lazuli pig­ment, seen below cen­ter tooth.

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