Women’s History Month: The Curious Case of the Lapis Lazuli

People study all sorts of weird things. Christina Warinner and Anita Radini study old teeth. Or more accurately, they study the stuff that modern day dentists are always scraping off our teeth: tartar. It turns out one can glean a lot of information from that build-up. It’s sort of like a dental window into the past.

And, as it turns out, the past is not always as it seems.

What do you think of when you think of medieval books? What images pop into your head? Is it brown-robed men with funny haircuts sitting atop a mountain monastery, toiling away by the dying firelight? Those are usually the images that flood our brains because those are the only images we’ve ever been given. They’re the ones from books and movies and plays. They’re the only ones we’ve had to work with.

And as with most things, we’ve only been given part of the picture.

There is a specific, recognizable vibrant blue in medieval illustrations. The color was made by grinding lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that came from a single region in Afghanistan. This wasn’t your everyday color. You weren’t going to find it in your medieval box of Crayolas. Not even the 64 pack. It was rare and expensive and would have been used only by expert artisans.

Which brings us back to the teeth.

What Wariner and Radini found was flecks of this very expensive pigment embedded in the tartar of a jawbone dating back to between 997 and 1162. And the jawbone? It was from a woman, buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany.

It was a stunning piece of evidence. A woman who was not skilled would not have been trusted, nor would she have even had access to a pigment as rare and expensive as the lapis. And despite our Robin Hood Friar Tuck assumptions, we actually DO know that women were involved in the production of books because scholars have found correspondence between monks and nuns regarding that very thing.

Yet it’s never been part of the narrative.

And the ultramarine teeth are not not the only piece of evidence to support this. There are surviving manuscripts signed by women. And then there is this nugget: Most of the signed manuscripts from the period are signed by men. However, the MAJORITY of manuscripts from this period are unsigned.

We just assume they were done by men because that’s the picture we’ve been given to work with.

What’s that saying? For most of history, anonymous was a woman?

There were plenty of explanations for how the woman ended up with ultramarine pigment embedded in the plaque around her teeth. And of course, “Some dismissed the idea that a woman could have been a painter skilled enough to work with ultramarine. One suggested to Warinner that this woman came into contact with ultramarine because she was simply the cleaning lady.”


The deposits were due to a repeated action. That is: It wasn’t some cleaning lady monk dusting some bald guy’s desk and inhaling a little blue dust.

My favorite theory–and the one which makes the most sense– is that the pigment was transferred from her brush to her teeth as she repeatedly moistened the tip.

So, do you see how this changes things? Now when we picture artisans toiling away by the light of the fire, we can also think of a woman, a narrow brush in her mouth, dipping it into this dazzling blue, carefully and skillfully painting by candlelight.

This idea that women were just kind of semi-sentient blobs of flesh not doing anything throughout all of history until the last 200 years needs to die. Of course women were painting and writing and composing and algebra-ing and studying the stars. Some of them were doing it despite the danger it would have put them in. In many instances, as we’re finding out, it was perfectly acceptable and normal–it’s just that in some weird history kink, someone decided no, there were no women anywhere doing anything of note you must be mistaken and if we do find evidence of such a thing surely it is an indication that she was a cleaning woman.

Stop painting us out of the picture. We’ve been there all along.

Happy Women’s History Month!

Talk to me, Goose.

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