One thousand years ago, a woman in a convent in northern Germany licked her paintbrush to draw the bristles into a fine point, and some of the pigment sealed into the plaque on her teeth. Now, archaeologists have discovered that the color came from lapis lazuli, a blue stone from half a world away. The finding suggests this anonymous middle-aged woman was likely a skilled painter tasked with creating high-quality illuminated manuscripts of religious texts—the first time a medieval artist has been identified from their skeleton alone, and further evidence that women copied and painted books in medieval Europe.
“This is a fabulous result,” says Mark Clarke, a technical art historian at NOVA University in Caparica, Portugal, who wasn’t involved in the research. Before this study, he thought, “We’re never going to find a skeleton and say, ‘That was a painter.’ But here it is!”
When Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, started to study the medieval skeleton, she wasn’t expecting to find anything special. The woman had lived in a religious community in Dalheim, Germany, sometime between 997 and 1162 C.E., and died between the ages of 45 and 60. Warinner was hoping to use her dental calculus to study her diet and the microbes that lived in her mouth.
Dental calculus traps “all the tiny little pieces of junk—the stuff we’re trying to eliminate while we’re flossing,” says Tiffiny Tung, a bioarchaeologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who wasn’t involved in the study. “It’s a plethora of information.”
But when Warinner and her then-student Anita Radini, now an archaeological scientist at the University of York in the United Kingdom, stuck some of the medieval woman’s dental calculus under a microscope, they saw something they had never seen before: The plaque was bright blue.
The team identified the compound as lapis lazuli, a stone mined in Afghanistan that can be ground and processed into a brilliant blue pigment. When the woman lived, lapis lazuli was beginning to arrive in Europe via trade with the Islamic world and was used to paint the highest quality illuminated manuscripts. “This stuff was more expensive than gold,” Clarke says. So how did it end up in this anonymous woman’s teeth?
Radini experimented with grinding lapis lazuli stone into a fine powder, the first step in turning it into a pigment suitable for painting. She ended up with lapis lazuli dust all over her, including, most notably, on her lips and mouth. Medieval artists usually prepared or refined their pigments themselves, Clarke says, so it’s easy to imagine this woman inadvertently dusting herself with lapis lazuli as she did so. And licking her paintbrush to create a point—a technique recommended by many medieval artists’ manuals—would have left even more blue particles in her mouth, the team reports today in Science Advances.
Given how expensive lapis lazuli was, “the work she was doing would have been a really elaborate manuscript,” likely a copy of a prayer book used for religious services at her convent or another monastery, says Cynthia Cyrus, a historian at Vanderbilt who studies medieval monasteries and wasn’t involved in the research.
A handful of signed manuscripts and other historical records show that women, especially those living in religious communities, were involved in copying and creating books. But when this woman lived, many female scribes didn’t sign their work—“a symbol of humility,” Warinner says. Today, anonymous medieval manuscripts are frequently attributed to men, she says, and many female scribes like this one were “written out of history.” But their teeth may bear silent witness to their skill.