Discovery in skeleton’s teeth reveals role of Medieval women in art


It’s not surprising to learn that women who lived during the Middle Ages didn’t always get the credit they deserved, but tangible proof that further erodes our male-centric view of history is always welcome.

A new study asserts that lapis lazuli found in the teeth from the remains of a Medieval woman indicates that she was an artist. Researchers are calling the discovery a “bombshell” because it provides extremely uncommon proof of the role that women played as skilled artists at the time.

“It’s kind of a bombshell for my field,” Alison Beach, a medieval history professor at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, told the Associated Press. “It’s so rare to find material evidence of women’s artistic and literary work in the Middle Ages.”

“B78,” as the anonymous skeleton is identified, was 45 to 60 years old when she died. She was then buried at a monastery in Germany sometime between 1000 and 1200 AD. Researchers first began to examine the mouth of the anonymous skeleton to better understand Medieval diet.

But the discovery they made was much more substantial. The resulting study, published in Science Advances by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of York, found remnants of the stone lapis lazuli. 

At the time, lapis was used to create blue pigment, and it was as valuable as gold. Specifically, artists used it to create illuminated manuscripts, which are intricately painted, often with precious materials. Researchers said that only skilled painters were entrusted with this duty, and as such, were some of the few people with access to the stone.

Lapis lazuli in the teeth of a medieval woman.

Lapis lazuli in the teeth of a medieval woman.

So how did ancient residue of a blue stone get into the skeleton’s mouth? 

Researchers think that licking the tip of a paintbrush was a common method to get a fine tip at the time. There are other explanations for how the lapis might have entered her mouth; perhaps she helped produce the stone, or it could have been used as a medical treatment. But a frequently licked paintbrush is the most likely explanation for the amount of lapis found in B78’s mouth so many centuries later.

It’s pretty cool to learn that a random skeleton was an elite artist in the Middle Ages. But the discovery has bigger implications. Scribes of the time penned every book produced by hand, and while few were credited it is believed that women both contributed more and were recognized less than is known. This discovery supports that belief.

“Because things are much better documented for men, it’s encouraged people to imagine a male world,” Beach told the AP. “This helps us correct that bias. This tooth opens a window on what activities women also were engaged in.”

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