Archaeologists recently unearthed the skeleton of a woman they say was probably a skilled artist who helped produce the richly illustrated religious texts of medieval Europe. The woman lived sometime between 997 and 1162 CE, according to radiocarbon dating of her teeth, at a small women’s monastery called Dalheim in Lichtenau, Germany. And she died with tiny flecks of expensive lapis lazuli pigment still caught in her teeth, probably from licking the tip of her paintbrush to make a finer point.
There’s something in your teeth
During the Middle Ages, the vivid blue pigment called ultramarine was made with powdered, purified lazurite crystals, which come from the rare stone lapis lazuli. Because it’s only mined in northeast Afghanistan, the mineral had to travel thousands of miles by land and sea through far-flung trade networks to reach Europe. It was fabulously expensive, ranking alongside silver and gold, and it would have been used to paint illustrations in only the most lavish, ornate, and expensive illuminated manuscripts. That means that only the most skilled, experienced painters would have access to it. Obviously, this unnamed medieval woman must have been exceptionally good at her work.
She died somewhere between the ages of 45 and 60, and her bones suggest a life of very little physical work or disease, which is exactly what you’d expect from a woman who spent her days painting at an isolated monastery. Anthropologist Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and her colleagues took samples of her fossilized dental plaque, or calculus, in 2014 to check for microscopic remains of plants, which would offer clues about the medieval woman’s diet. But when they dissolved the sample to extract the plant bits, the process also released hundreds of tiny blue particles.