February 22, 2019

The Mysterious Case of the Medieval Nun’s Teeth

“When an academic makes a research breakthrough, two things can happen in the public consciousness: nothing, or something. It’s hard to know which is worse. Let’s say you’re a physicist who discovers a particle that isn’t affected by gravity. If nobody outside the physics world cares about your discovery, you sigh, shake your head, get back to the lab. If your story does hit the newspapers, on the other hand, you’ll have to adjust to a different kind of outrage: Your scrupulous research will be repurposed into some bad headline (“GRAVITY DISPROVEN”) designed to yank eyeballs, extract clicks, and generally trample over your precious academic principles.

Last week, the second thing happened. In a new article for Science Advances, Anita Radini, an archaeologist at Britain’s University of York, published evidence showing the presence of lapis lazuli—an ancient, rare, lovely blue stone pigment—on the teeth of a medieval German nun. The nun’s skeleton, named “B78,” dates from the 11th or early 12th century and was found in an unmarked grave in the German town of Dalheim. By working with tartar experts, microscopists, and medieval historians, Radini was able to conclude that this woman must have been a painter or scribe (or both) who illuminated manuscripts.

She must also have been a very good one, since lapis lazuli was an extremely expensive pigment only mined in Afghanistan. It was reserved for the hands of high-end professionals. The pigment probably got into her mouth directly from the paintbrush, over the course of many years of work.

The story is delightful, all by itself. There’s an element of chance to the findings—nobody was looking for lapis lazuli on these teeth—which lends them the charm of serendipity. The confluence of beautiful medieval art and chemistry has a poetry all of its own.”

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