Rare gemstone particles found in an 8th-century nun's mouth shatter a historical misconception
The gem lapis lazuli is the source of luminescent blue in manuscript illustrations.
- It turns out medieval religious manuscripts were not exclusively the domain of male monks.
- Fleck of a rare gemstone pigment in fossilized teeth prove women were involved in the making of religious manuscripts.
- We'll never see these exquisite books the same way again.
Surviving medieval religious manuscripts can be quite beautiful, with impeccable calligraphy and adorned with intricately detailed and brightly colorful illustrations. By and large, their authors remain unknown, and they've been assumed to be monks, since the few signatures they contain are of male names — it's likely humility prevented most authors from identifying themselves. However, there's evidence that suggests nuns in Salzburg and Bavarian monasteries may have been working as scribes and artists as far back as the 8th century.
And now, a new study, published on Jan. 9 in Science Advances, reveals physical proof that women were involved in religious manuscript production: telltale flecks of ultramarine paint found in the fossilized teeth of a middle-aged medieval nun.
Not just any paint
To get from a few bits of pigment to the conclusion that someone worked on medieval manuscripts may seem like quite a leap, but it's not. That's because those flecks are lapis lazuli, the source of luminescent ultramarines in manuscript illustrations. Ground and purified into paint, the gemstone's presence is an unarguable indication that the woman was involved in illustrating the books since the pigment was so extraordinarily expensive that it was used almost exclusively in the production of religious manuscripts.
Its extreme value was due to its scarcity, as a mined product of just a single area in Afghanistan now called Badakshan. According to study historian Alison Beach of Ohio State, "Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use."
Lapis lazuli's distinctive ultramarine is at the top
A Medieval cemetery gives up a secret
When the team of international researchers were analyzing fossilized dental calculus — tooth tartar and plaque — to learn more about the nuns who had lived at a medieval monastery in Dalheim, Germany, they came across something unusual in one woman. She was estimated to have been between 45 and 60 years old when she died, and to have lived sometime between 1,000 and 1,200 AD.
In her teeth were traces of lapis lazuli. "It came as a complete surprise — as the calculus dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles," says lead author Anita Radini of the University of York. X-ray spectroscopy and micro-Raman spectroscopy revealed the flecks to be the gem.
Once the lapis lazuli had been identified, it was clear the woman had been involved in manuscript production, but why would the gem fragments be all over her mouth? Radini recalls, "We examined many scenarios for how this mineral could have become embedded in the calculus on this woman's teeth." In the end, only one explanation really made sense. "Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth," says coauthor Monica Tromp, "we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she was herself painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting."
The surprising find
Stepping from the shadows of history
The woman's lapis lazuli is a needle-in-a-haystack, history-changing find. Says senior author Christina Warriner of Max Planck Institute: "Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the way place. This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques. It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries — if we only look."
(Radini, et al)
Dental calculus containing lapis lazuli
- Why a Medieval Woman Had Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Her Teeth ›
- Blue Pigment in 1,000-Year-Old Teeth Links Women to the ... ›
- Blue gems in teeth illuminate women's hidden role in medieval ... ›
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
- Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.
If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.
- For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
- Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
- Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
- Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.