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Why Priceless Lapis Lazuli Was Found in a Medieval Nun's Mouth

The answer could rewrite the history of religious manuscripts.
Lapis lazuli pigment entrapped in the dental calculus on the lower jaw a medieval woman.

Lapis lazuli pigment entrapped in the dental calculus on the lower jaw a medieval woman.

Scientists just made a major discovery about the role of female artists and scribes in the Middle Ages—all based on some 1,000-year-old dental plaque.

The plaque in question belonged to a middle-aged woman buried in a small women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany around A.D. 1100. 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.

Though Radini and her co-author on the new study, Christina Warinner at the University of Zürich, were both experts in studying ancient tartar, neither of them had seen anything like this before. After enlisting the help of fellow archaeologists, physicists and historians, they were finally able to identify it as ultramarine, a rare pigment made from the semi-precious mineral known as lapis lazuli.

During the German woman’s lifetime, ultramarine was so rare that it would have been worth its weight, or more, in gold. For centuries, lapis lazuli could be found only in a single region of northern Afghanistan, and the pigment painstakingly derived from its stones was among the most revered shades used by artists in Renaissance Europe, who often chose it to color the Virgin Mary’s robes. 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.

Due to its high value, ultramarine was used only on the most valuable of medieval manuscripts—richly decorated texts created in monasteries for the use of religious leaders and the nobility. Though many medieval scribes and painters didn’t sign their work, it’s long been assumed that women played a limited role in producing such highly valued documents.

“Picture someone copying a medieval book—if you picture anything, you’re going to picture a monk, not a nun,” Alison Beach, a historian at Ohio State University who worked on the study, told the New York Times.

But through their analysis of the pigment found in the German nun’s tartar, Radini, Warinner, Beach and their colleagues upended this assumption, arguing that the woman most likely worked as a painter and scribe, probably a highly skilled one. The most likely scenario, they concluded, is that she got ultramarine in her mouth by using her tongue to shape the end of her brush.

The pigment was well-distributed throughout the woman’s dental plaque, suggesting she painted many manuscripts. And, like everyone in the Middle Ages, she didn’t brush her teeth, preserving the gritty history of her work and life for scholars to find centuries later. 

"This woman's story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques,” Warinner said in a press release announcing the study. “It makes me wonder how many other artists we might find in medieval cemeteries, if we only look."

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