Research on Lapis Lazuli from the Max Planck Institute
Lapis Lazuli traces found in the tartar of a nun’s dental remains reveal information about her life in the Middle Ages
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History have analyzed the tartar of a well-preserved skeleton in Jena, Germany. Actually, the American anthropologist and group leader at the Max Planck Institute, Christina Warinner, was investigating the periodontosis infestation of the time.
But instead, the researchers made a different, very interesting find: they discovered Lasurite, a component mineral in Lapis Lazuli, in the tartar of the remains of a woman. She was a nun who lived about 1000 to 1200 AD and was buried in the cemetery of the Dalheim monastery (near Paderborn/North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany).
This is interesting in that Lapis Lazuli was extremely precious at that time – as valuable, or perhaps even more valuable than gold at the time. Furthermore, a single source for this mineral was known: a mine in Afghanistan!
All the more reason the discovery was so puzzling. To find Lapis Lazuli in the tartar of a nun’s teeth, so far from the origin of the mineral, in central Germany, implies she had somehow been in close contact with it.
The most reasonable theory, according to these researchers, is that the nun used the mineral in her work. They suspect that she was an artist who illustrated precious books such as Bibles. The Lapis Lazuli residues could have come about by regular licking of the paintbrush tip, to allow a more precise application of the color.
Other theories are that the nun may have taken the stone as medicine or worked with it for some other purpose. However, researchers doubt such scenarios, since Lapis Lazuli was much too valuable at that time to be used ‘regularly’. Besides, the residues were found only in the woman’s tartar and nowhere else in her remains.
Women in the Middle Ages – secret works?
Women did not have many rights in the Middle Ages. As a rule, they gave birth and raised children. The illustration of precious works and the use of valuable materials such as Lapis Lazuli was only really an option for men of high social or religious ranking – at least, according to our general knowledge, and based on many Historians’ research.
But the nun from the German monastery could shed light on this assumption. Some researchers and Historians have been hypothesizing for some time that women were, indeed, involved in book production, especially in Germany, but did not sign their works out of humility. With this new find, however, concrete evidence could be collected.