A skeleton’s blue teeth represent a ‘bombshell’ discovery for women’s history

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

A new study claims that lapis lazuli found in the teeth from the remains of a Middle ages woman indicates that she was an artist. Scientists are calling the breakthrough a “bombshell” because it supplies extremely unusual 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 an abbey in Germany sometime between 1000 and 1200 AD. Researchers first began to analyze the mouth of the anonymous skeleton to better comprehend Medieval diet.

But the discovery they made was considerably more substantial. The resulting research, 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 produce blue pigment, and it was as precious as gold. Specifically, artists used it to create illuminated manuscripts, which are intricately painted, often with precious materials. Scientist said that only skilled painters were trusted with this task, and as such, were some of the few folks with easy access to the stone.

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

Researchers believe that licking the tip of a paintbrush was a common method to get a good 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 an often 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 discover that a random skeleton was an exclusive artist in the Middle Ages. But the breakthrough has bigger implications. Scribes of the time wrote every book created by hand, and while few were credited it is believed that women both contributed more and were acknowledged less than is known. This discovery sustains that belief.

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