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The ‘Teething’ Issues?

A tiny blue-coloured mysterious stone is stuck in the teeth of a 1,000-year-old woman’s skeleton! But, how is it possible? As archaeologists made an attempt to resolve the mystery, they came to know about the profession of the medieval woman.
Archaeologists revealed that it was not a stone, but a fossilised dental plaque or (blue) tartar. The radio carbon dating helped archaeologists prove that the skeleton of the nun dates to sometime between 997 and 1162 AD and she was most probably 45-60 years old when she died. The nun was buried in an unmarked grave near a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. Group leader of archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany (and a tartar expert) Dr Christina Warinner said that the presence of particles of a brilliant blue in the dental plaque of a nun from medieval Germany surprised her a lot. “They looked like little robins’ eggs, they were so bright. I remember being dumbfounded,” stressed Dr Warinner.
Dr Warinner revealed senior physicist at the University of York Roland Kröger used spectroscopy to confirm the presence of two minerals – lazurite and phlogopite – in the structure stuck in the teeth. And these two minerals are found together only in lapis lazuli. Dr Warinner said that it was basically a smoking gun that was available in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. In medieval Germany, people used to make colours from lapis dust (after crushing the lapis) and legendary painters – like Michelangelo – used this colour during the Renaissance period. Authors and painters, too, used these costly colours mainly to write precious religious scripts at that time.


Magnified particles of lapis lazuli

How the colour was trapped in a nun’s teeth?
Archaeologists are of the opinion that perhaps, the 10th-century nun was an accomplished painter and manuscript illuminator, who used her (un-brushed) teeth to shape a paintbrush! Monica Tromp – a microscopist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History – said that the nun was most probably in charge of writing holy letters or Bible verses and she shaped the paintbrush with her teeth. Tromp used scanning electron microscopy to find that the pigment had all the chemical elements of lapis lazuli.
Before the 12th century, less than 1% women were associated with writing holy letters or Bible verses and the nun was one of them. Most importantly, names of female painters or writers were rarely mentioned in those works as the discloser of identity was widely considered as dishonour to female artists in Medieval Europe. As a result, archaeologists have failed to trace the identity of the nun.


The foundations of the church in Dalheim, Germany

Some sociologists have expressed doubt over the profession of the lady. They opined that kissing the Bible or a holy book is an old practice. Therefore, it is difficult to confirm that the nun was also a painter! However, archaeologists claimed that although kissing a holy book is a popular practice, it was developed after the 13th century. But, the skeleton is more than 1,000-year-old!
Archaeologists further claimed that lapis lazuli was used for preparing medicines in ancient Europe. However, the Germans had no idea about that. Some say that the nun might have made other things from lapis lazuli stone… Researchers don’t believe so as the medieval Europe had no idea about how to make bright blue pigment from light ash colour. Researchers are quite sure that the nun was a painter.


A section of an apocalypse scene from the Gerona Beatus, a 10th-century Spanish manuscript painted by Ende, a female manuscript illuminator. It is the earliest known use of lapis lazuli by a female painter

It is to be noted that lapis lazuli is truly a fine material and it is still rare. Currently, it is used as semiprecious stone. The superfine material may cost USD 100-150 per carat or more. Researchers opined that the particles, it turned out, were of ultramarine pigment, the finest and most expensive of blue colourings, made of lapis lazuli stone from Afghanistan. So, the material would have had to travel through thousands of miles of trade routes to reach Europe. The nun, with the pigment in her teeth, was likely a scribe of religious texts. Therefore, she must have been highly skilled to have been entrusted with such a rare powder.

Dr Alison Beach – a historian at Ohio State University and an author on the study – stressed: “We struggle to find sources reflecting women’s lives in the Middle Ages that aren’t filtered through men’s experiences or opinions about what women’s lives should have been. Now, we have a direct piece of evidence about what this woman did on a day-to-day basis – all because they didn’t brush their teeth.

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