"Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, 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", explains one of the authors, Monica Tromp, a microbioarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute. 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.
Archaeologist Anita Radini, of the University of York, in England was examining the woman's dental tartar when she noticed flecks of a brilliant blue substance. B78 was between 45 and 60 years old when she died, and her remains showed no signs of physical trauma or infection. Michelangelo ordered large quantities of ultramarine for his work on the Sistine Chapel, but reportedly couldn't afford enough to finish his painting The Entombment.
"Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use", said Alison Beach, study co-author and historian at Ohio State University, in a statement. "This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques".
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.
A magnified view of the tiny lapis lazuli particles embedded within a woman's medieval dental calculus.
But a few rare surviving works from as early as the eighth century reveal that women were scribes.
An alternative theory to painting is that she was not involved in producing the manuscripts, but rather that she "performed emotive devotional osculation of illuminated books produced by others", according to the new paper by Warinner and colleagues. "Although surviving examples of these early works are rare and relatively modest, there is a growing body of evidence that women's monasteries were actively producing books of the highest quality by the 12th century", the study authors write.
The researchers ruled out other bluish pigments common in the Middle Ages, which mostly were made with mixtures of copper, cobalt or iron. They used what is known as micro-Raman spectroscopy to identify the particles. "It's very rare and very expensive". 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.
Alexis Hagadorn, who is head of conservation at Columbia University Libraries and was not involved in the study, called the find "very exciting". And a single female scribe living in 12th-century Bavaria is thought to have produced more than 40 books alone. "This study is unprecedented in using archaeological evidence from human remains to suggest a direct connection between an individual and the work of the scribes who created the most sumptuously decorated books". "Here we have evidence of a female scribe/artist", not from a secondhand source, "but from residues in her mouth".