The analysis of human teeth has become increasingly important in modern archaeology. A recent discovery of a set of teeth in a German monastery is revolutionizing our understanding of women in religious life some nine centuries ago. It is also changing our understanding of the role of nuns in the production of illuminated manuscripts, perhaps the most important religious art form in the Middle Ages.
A team of experts have been working on the site of a long ruined small convent or monastery in Dalheim, Germany. This was occupied in the 10 th to the 14 th century but was burned to the ground during a civil war and nothing remains but its foundations and a small burial ground. The monastery is “known only from a handful of scraps of text that mention it in passing” according to the National Public Radio .
The ruined convent
The team from York University found a skeleton of a woman in the cemetery while investigating the health of individuals during the Middle Ages. She was aged between 40 and 60, which would have been considered quite old at this period, and she was almost certainly a nun. Based on an analysis of the presumed nun’s remains, she probably died in the late 10 th or early 11 th century. Her skeleton would suggest that she never engaged in hard physical labor and was a member of the upper strata of society – indeed many nuns were from the aristocracy at this period. Then experts discovered something very unusual, they found some traces of blue paint on her teeth.
Blue flecks on teeth
The analysis found the blue flecks were of “ultramarine, a rare pigment made from crushed lapis lazuli stones” reports CNN. This was an astonishing discovery as this pigment was very expensive at this time and was as “rare and as expensive as gold” according to the study in Science Advances Magazine . It was only used in the production of artistic works for the elite and especially for religious art and most artists could not afford it even in the Renaissance. This pigment was used in the production of illuminated manuscripts at the time in particular and was made from crushed stones that came all the way via merchants from distant Afghanistan.
Blue particles observed embedded within archaeological dental calculus. ( A) Archaeological tooth from individual B78 showing attached dental calculus deposits before sampling. Images (B) to (I) are shown to the same scale, as indicated in (I). Credit: C. Warinner (A); M. Tromp and A. Radini (B to I). ( CC BY NC 4.0 )
A nun who was also a scribe
It seemed that the dead woman had probably been an artist who had licked the tip of a paintbrush that had been dipped in the rare pigment. This habit, even today common among many painters, is the most likely explanation for the blue specs on the woman’s teeth. There is the possibility that it was consumed for medicinal reasons, but this has largely been discounted.
An illuminated manuscript was a book which is lavishly illustrated with images, symbols and miniature paintings. They were designed to express the contents of a text which was very important given that most people were illiterate even monarchs. The production of these books was very time consuming and expensive. Color was essential in the production of these works and gold was frequently used, and so too were expensive pigments such as ultramarine. Most illuminated manuscripts were religious in character and made by professional scribes who were typically members of religious orders. The discovery would indicate that nuns and women were more active in the production of precious illuminated manuscripts than previously thought. The BBC reports that, “ it had been believed that less than 1% of books could be attributed to them before the 12th century” and that most scribes were male monks. However, there is growing evidence that more females were scribes than previously thought. Many female artists would not have autographed their work as it was contrary to beliefs concerning Christian humility. The discovery of the blue flecks on the teeth provide more evidence that nuns were very important in medieval art.
Self portrait of Guda, a 12 th century nun. The inscription she holds reads, “Guda, peccatrix mulier scripsit et pinxit hunc librum,” translated as “Guda, a sinful woman, wrote and painted this book.”
Growing recognition of female medieval artists
The community of nuns at the site was never large, only about 15 or twenty. It seemed that the they had the resources to purchase what would have been a very expensive artistic material. This would show that convents received massive support from the local elite and that they were powerful in the local society.
It is also likely that, given the size of the community, the woman was probably the only scribe. The unknown artist made the ultramarine pigment herself which was typical in artistic production until modern times. The female scribe would have worked on her own in a room in the convent known as a scriptorium and produced painstakingly produce beautiful books for the community and local patrons among the aristocracy. Sadly, none of the dead women’s art has survived and was most likely destroyed in the fire that gutted the monastery in the 1300s.
Some blue flecks found on a set of teeth are challenging our assumptions about women and religious life in the 10 th century. It indicates that female religious orders and monasteries were very important and significant centers in artistic production. Moreover, the old view that monks produced the works is no longer sustainable and the role of women in medieval work needs to be recognized.
Top image: Self portrait of Guda, a 12 th century nun and female scribe. Source: Public Domain
By Ed Whelan