Scientists Examining A Medieval Skeleton Discovered A Rare Pigment That Rewrites History

A thousand years ago, a community of women thrived in a monastery at Dalheim in rural Germany. Now, several centuries on, a team of researchers are hard at work examining medieval remnants at the site. But while studying the remains of one former resident, the group discover something unexpected: an incredible secret that could rewrite the history of humankind.

And for Anita Radini and her coworkers, the eye-opening moment is one that few could have predicted when their research began. Initially, the team planned to study teeth unearthed at the location, analyzing any build-up of plaque to learn more about the diet and oral hygiene of women who lived so long ago. However, the specialists ended up finding so much more.

You see, the researchers discovered something strange when looking at the plaque under the microscope. Apparently, the substance was flecked with a brilliant blue pigment, and this flash of color understandably grabbed attention. But what was the cause of this shade? Amazingly, the answer appears to reveal incredible truths about the women who lived at Dalheim and their important role in medieval society.

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Even with all the technology that we have on offer today, the past still contains many mysteries that are yet to be revealed. And while ruined buildings and forgotten texts can tell us much about the world that came before us, there are many other ways to learn what life was like in ancient times. Fascinatingly, one of these avenues is the study of bones.

Indeed, we can discern a great deal about people through investigating their skeletal remains. For example, the position and location of bones can tell us how and where communities lived and worked; a skeleton’s condition can also give us valuable insights into an individual’s death. Now, though, researchers are applying a different type of analysis to ancient remains – and with fascinating results.

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And that takes us back to the ancient monastery that once stood in the Dalheim region of western Germany. In fact, the building was constructed so long ago that the exact date of its foundation has been lost to time. However, experts believe that the location may have been home to a community of women as far back as the tenth century A.D.

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In addition, the first written records from the monastery at Dalheim date back to 1244 A.D. But aside from that, we know little about the building and the people who once called it home. It’s thought that some 14 women once lived and prayed within the monastery’s walls before it was destroyed in the 14th century – perhaps as a result of a series of nearby battles.

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Then, between 1988 and 1991, a team of researchers from the Westphalian Museum of Archaeology in Herne, Germany, set out to excavate the site of the monastery. And among the artifacts that they discovered was the skeleton of a woman who had been buried in an adjacent cemetery. According to radiocarbon dating, she had died at some point between 997 A.D. and 1162 A.D.

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At first, however, researchers could find nothing particularly remarkable about the woman’s remains. Her skeleton exhibited no obvious indicators of infection or trauma, nor was there any sign that she had engaged in any strenuous manual labor during her lifetime. It was also determined that the woman had been aged between 45 and 60 when she died.

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According to experts, the women who lived in monasteries such as the one at Dalheim often came from aristocratic and noble backgrounds – which would explain the apparent lack of physical activity. But apart from that, it seemed that this particular skeleton had little else to tell us about the world she once inhabited.

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But this all changed in 2014, when an interdisciplinary team of researchers decided to take a closer look at the woman’s teeth. Specifically, they hoped to analyze organic material found within the skeleton’s dental calculus, or fossilized plaque. But what could the centuries-old oral detritus really tell them about the past?

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Today, most people practice decent oral hygiene by brushing and even flossing their teeth regularly. As a result, dental plaque is frequently scrubbed off before it can really take a hold. Yet communities in the past weren’t quite so fastidious, meaning deposits were often left to build up on teeth instead.

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Over the years, then, the dental plaque would slowly mineralize, entombing various particles and debris from an individual’s mouth along the way. And, eventually, this process would form something called calculus – a valuable resource for the archaeologists of today. In fact, studying this fascinating substance may yield clues about everything from the diet to the environment of the deceased.

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And while most studies have focused on using dental calculus to reconstruct the eating habits of ancient people, it’s believed that the technique could have far wider applications. At the very least, researchers have previously identified a wide range of particles within the substance, including pollen, fibers, spores and micro-charcoal.

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Initially, though, the researchers studying the Dalheim woman’s dental calculus were looking for different things. University of York archaeologist Radini hoped to identify starch granules within the deposits, for instance, while Christina Warriner – an anthropologist from Germany’s Max Planck Institute – wanted to get a closer look at some ancient bacteria.

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But Radini was ultimately in for a shock. While working in her York laboratory, she began using an acid to slowly dissolve the calculus from the Dalheim woman’s teeth. And when she looked under the microscope, she discovered something astonishing. There, scattered through the fossilized plaque, were hundreds of vibrant blue flecks.

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“It came as a complete surprise. As the calculus dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles,” Radini said in a statement released by the Max Planck Institute in January 2019. At first, however, the researchers had no idea what the strange substance could be. “Can you imagine the kind of cold calls we had to make in the beginning?” Warriner told The Atlantic in 2019. “‘Hi, I’m working on this thing with teeth, and it’s about 1,000 years old, and it has blue stuff in it. Can you help me?’”

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“People thought we were crazy,” Warriner continued. “We tried reaching out to physicists, and they were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ We tried reaching out to people working in art restoration, and they were like, ‘Why are you working with plaque?’” Eventually, however, the researchers’ perseverance paid off.

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Using spectrographic analysis – a scientific method that studies the spectrum of light – researchers were finally able to identify the substance found on the Dalheim woman’s teeth. It appeared to be a type of pigment known as ultramarine. And according to experts, this brilliant color was once created by crushing pieces of the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli.

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But during the Dalheim’s woman’s lifetime, lapis lazuli was very rare. In fact, it could only be sourced from a particular region in Afghanistan, meaning examples of the stone were then considered as valuable as gold. And, understandably, lapis lazuli’s vibrant blue color meant that it was particularly treasured in the art world.

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Centuries later, artists would use ultramarine to add brilliant tones to the robes of the Virgin Mary in many Renaissance paintings. And according to some, Michelangelo even ordered the pigment while painting the Sistine Chapel – although he reportedly ran out of cash to pay for the expensive resource. So how exactly had such a costly item made its way to a monastery in rural Germany?

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Well, according to historian Michael McCormick, the Dalheim woman acquired the pigment via a fascinating ancient trade route. “She was plugged into a vast global commercial network stretching from the mines of Afghanistan to her community in medieval Germany through the trading metropolises of Islamic Egypt and Byzantine Constantinople,” McCormick is quoted as saying in the Max Planck Institute statement.

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But while this may explain how the pigment arrived in Germany, it still does not answer the question of why it had been transported so far. It should be noted, however, that ultramarine was not uncommon in monasteries at the time. In fact, along with gold leaf, it was used to create illuminated manuscripts – a type of elaborately decorated text featuring brightly colored illustrations.

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Yet although illuminated manuscripts were often created in monasteries, the use of valuable ultramarine was restricted to the most talented artists. “Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” historian Alison Beach explained in the statement. And until now, many have assumed that all of these masters were men.

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According to experts, it was common for those working on medieval illuminated manuscripts to decline to sign their name on their work – likely as a gesture of humility. And, apparently, this was particularly true of female scribes. Yet this absence has been taken by many to suggest that women were historically missing from this line of work.

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Then, in January 2019, Radini, Warriner and their colleagues published a study detailing their findings. In the analysis, they noted that only 15 percent of manuscripts that had been discovered in monasteries inhabited by women had established female authors. And with those works that dated back to before the 12th century, the number was even lower: less than 1 percent.

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So how exactly did ultramarine pigment end up present on the teeth of a woman living at Dalheim monastery some 1,000 years ago? The team considered a variety of explanations. For example, might the residue have got there via some kind of ritual that involved osculating, or kissing, a manuscript?

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Apparently, the practice of ritually kissing manuscripts became widespread from the 14th century onward; given the date of the remains found at Dalheim, though, this explanation seems unlikely. Alternatively, then, the study considered the possibility that the woman had ingested lapis lazuli as medicine at some point.

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But this explanation also came with its problems. Although lapis lazuli is known to have been used as a medicine since the first century, there is little evidence to suggest that ingesting the stone was a common practice in Germany at the time. Furthermore, the particles found on the Dalheim woman’s teeth were very small, suggesting that they had been intentionally ground into pigment.

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And the study additionally claims that the ultramarine pigment was distributed throughout the plaque – a pattern that suggested multiple exposures rather than just one ingestion. So, the researchers also considered the possibility that the woman had come into contact with the pigment while cleaning. Maybe she had even been involved in its preparation.

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Yet this theory ultimately fell by the wayside, too. According to the study, the process of refining lapis lazuli into pigment required a specific process that is thought to have been unique to the Arab world at the time. It seems likely, then, that the ultramarine that arrived at the monastery had been the final article.

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So, having considered – and dismissed – a variety of different scenarios, the study concluded that there was only one likely explanation for how the pigment got onto the woman’s teeth. And if the interpretation bears out, it could yet transform our understanding of women’s role within the medieval world.

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“Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she herself was painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” microbioarchaeologist Monica Tromp explained in the statement from the Max Planck Institute.

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And amazingly, it’s not the first time that evidence has emerged to suggest that women may have been respected scribes in medieval society. In fact, Beach has uncovered two 12th-century letters that detail a commission undertaken by a woman known only as “N” – an inhabitant of a monastery located just 40 miles away from Dalheim.

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In the missives, a monk from a male monastery asks N to produce an illuminated manuscript using luxurious materials such as silk and leather. And in the study, researchers noted the significance of such important work being outsourced to female scribes. In particular, this suggests that the women of the region may have already enjoyed a formidable reputation as artists prior to the 12th century.

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And Beach has discovered yet more evidence of female scribes using lapis lazuli as a pigment. This time, it came in the form of a German book dated to around 1200 A.D. – making this the earliest example of the practice ever uncovered in the region.

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All in all, then, these finds could have far-reaching implications for the study of women in the medieval arts. “Here we have direct evidence of a woman not just painting but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment – and at a very out-of-the-way place,” Warinner explained. “This woman’s story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques.”

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What’s more, owing to the fire that ultimately destroyed the Dalheim monastery, Radini and her coworkers’ discovery could represent the only surviving example of this kind of activity. In other words, if the researchers had not stumbled across the pigment in the skeleton’s teeth, we may never have suspected that this community of women was known for more than their religious devotion.

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Taking all of this into consideration, then, future studies of dental calculus may prove similarly enlightening. “Our work strongly points to the possibility of using microscopic particles entombed in ancient tartar to track the artists of ancient times,” Radini, Warriner and Tromp wrote in a January 2019 article for Phys.org. “It also suggests that it might be possible to track other ‘dusty’ crafts using this method and thereby reveal the invisible workforce behind many forms of art.”

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Today, the remains of the Dalheim woman have found a new home on display at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Evolutionary Medicine in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Warriner continues to examine particles frozen in ancient plaque, discovering everything from pieces of wool to opium residue hidden within. Ironically, though, she notes that researchers practicing decades or even centuries from now may not have so much luck with the skeletons of today – thanks, it seems, to the attentions of modern dentists. “They aren’t thinking of future archaeologists,” she jokingly complained to The Atlantic.

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