Medieval woman's hidden career revealed by blue teeth

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The team proposed four possible explanations: the most likely, they believe, is that she was directly involved in making books, licking the ends of her brushes to make a fine point, which would explain the distribution of the fragments in her mouth. Because of the cost of carrying it to Europe, ultramarine was reserved for the most important and well-funded artistic projects. She was recalling the discovery of the blue flecks in the tooth with a colleague while both were studying other aspects of the remains such as diet and disease.

The discovery indicates that women were playing a far more significant role in the writing and illustration of manuscripts at this time than has previously been recognised.

But when modern scientists examined her dug-up remains, they discovered something peculiar - brilliant blue flecks in the tartar on her teeth. B78 was between 45 and 60 years old when she died, and her remains showed no signs of physical trauma or infection.

In recent years, scholars have identified indirect documentary evidence that women participated in making the expensive, handcrafted books that religious communities used before the invention of the printing press.

"Within the context of medieval art, the application of highly pure ultramarine in illuminated works was restricted to luxury books of high value and importance, and only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use", reads the new paper in the journal Science Advances.

In a study published in Science Advances, an global team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York shed light on the role of women in the creation of such manuscripts with a surprising discovery-the identification of lapis lazuli pigment embedded in the calcified dental plaque of a middle-aged woman buried at a small women's monastery in Germany around 1100 AD. There were limited information about the site where the nun was from since the monastery burned down during the 14 century.

Furthermore, the experts say that the blue pigment "was as, or more, valuable than the gold applied to manuscripts" during the time since it had to travel long before it reached Europe. Grinding lapis lazuli creates clouds of blue dust-a 15th century manual from Italy advises artists to cover mortars used to crush the stone-and could theoretically have entered the woman's oral cavity that way.

Lapis lazuli was costly as it was produced from a single mine in Afghanistan. Few illuminated manuscripts were signed by their creators, but those that have a signature were usually signed by men. Though many medieval scribes and painters didn't sign their work, it's always been assumed that women played a limited role in producing such highly valued documents. Among historic Mediterranean and Islamic cultures, lapis lazuli was consumed as a medical treatment, the authors note, though there is little evidence to suggest that this practice existed in medieval Germany.

The authors' conclusion is supported by a growing body of evidence that suggests religious women in Germany and Austria played a particularly active role in book production.

"This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques", says senior author Christina Warinner, also of the Max Planck Institute.

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