A thousand years ago, a community of women thrived in a monastery at Dalheim in rural Germany. Now a team of researchers is hard at work examining its medieval remains. But while studying one resident, they discovered something unexpected. It was an incredible secret that could rewrite the history of mankind.
For Anita Radini and her coworkers, it’s an eye-opening moment that few could have predicted when their research began. Initially, they planned to study teeth from the ancient site, analyzing the build-up of plaque to learn more about the diet and oral hygiene of women who lived many centuries ago. However, they ended up finding so much more.
While looking at plaque under the microscope, researchers discovered something strange. Apparently, the substance was flecked with a brilliant blue pigment that immediately grabbed their attention. But how had it got there? Amazingly, the answer reveals incredible truths about the women who lived at Dalheim and their important role in medieval society.
Even with today’s modern technology, the past still contains many mysteries that are yet to be revealed. Ruined buildings and forgotten texts can tell us much about the world that came before us. But there are many other ways to learn what life was like in ancient times. Fascinatingly, one of these is the study of bones.
Through old and long-buried bones, we can learn much about the people that they once belonged to. For example, their position and location can tell us how and where communities lived and worked. Meanwhile, their condition can teach us about an individual’s death. Now, however, researchers are applying a different type of analysis to ancient remains – with fascinating results.
Over in the Dalheim region of western Germany, an ancient monastery once stood. In fact, the building was constructed so long ago that the exact date of its foundation has been lost to time. However, experts believe that it may have been home to a community of women as far back as the tenth century A.D.
According to researchers, the first written records from the monastery at Dalheim date back to 1244 A.D. But aside from that, we know little about the building and the people who once called it home. Apparently, some 14 women once lived and prayed within its walls before it was destroyed in the 14th century. Its end may have come as a result of a series of nearby battles.
Between 1988 and 1991, a team of researchers from the Westphalian Museum of Archaeology in Herne, Germany, set out to excavate the site of the monastery. And among the artifacts that they discovered was the skeleton of a woman, buried in an adjacent cemetery. According to radiocarbon dating, she died at some point between 997 and 1162 A.D.
At first, researchers could find nothing particularly remarkable about the woman’s remains. Apparently, she had been aged between 45 and 60 when she died. And her skeleton exhibited no obvious indicators of infection or trauma. Meanwhile, her bones showed no sign that she had engaged in any strenuous manual labor throughout her lifetime.
According to experts, the women who lived in monasteries such as the one at Dalheim often came from aristocratic and noble backgrounds – which would explain the lack of physical activity evident in these remains. But apart from that, it seemed that this particular skeleton had little else to tell us about the world she once inhabited.
However, all that changed in 2014, when an interdisciplinary team of researchers decided to take a closer look at the woman’s teeth. Specifically, they hoped to analyze organic material found within the skeleton’s dental calculus, or fossilized plaque. But what could the centuries-old oral detritus really tell them about the past?
Today, most people practice decent oral hygiene, brushing and even flossing their teeth regularly. As a result, dental plaque is frequently scrubbed off before it can really take a hold. However, in the past individuals did not do these practices, and the substance was left to build up instead.
Over the years, the dental plaque would slowly mineralize. Along the way, it entombed various particles and debris from the individual’s mouth. And eventually, it would form something called calculus – a valuable resource for the archaeologists of today. In fact, everything from diet to environment can be reconstructed by studying this fascinating substance.
Up until recently, most studies have focused on using dental calculus to reconstruct the eating habits of ancient people. However, it’s believed that the technique could have far wider applications. In fact, researchers have previously identified a wide range of particles within the substance, including pollen, fibers, spores and micro-charcoal.
Initially, the researchers studying the Dalheim woman’s dental calculus were looking for different things. Radini, an archaeologist with the University of York, hoped to identify starch granules within the deposits. Meanwhile, Christina Warriner, an anthropologist with Germany’s Max Planck Institute, hoped to get a closer look at some ancient bacteria.
However, Radini was in for a shock. While working in her York laboratory, she began using an acid to slowly dissolve the calculus from the Dalheim woman’s teeth. And when she looked under the microscope, she discovered something astonishing. There, scattered through the fossilized plaque, were hundreds of vibrant blue flecks.
“It came as a complete surprise – as the calculus dissolved, it released hundreds of tiny blue particles,” Radini said in a statement released by the Max Planck Institute in January 2019. At first, however, the researchers had no idea what the strange substance could be. “Can you imagine the kind of cold calls we had to make in the beginning?” Warriner told The Atlantic in 2019. “‘Hi, I’m working on this thing with teeth, and it’s about 1,000 years old, and it has blue stuff in it. Can you help me?’”
“People thought we were crazy,” Warriner continued. “We tried reaching out to physicists, and they were like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ We tried reaching out to people working in art restoration, and they were like, ‘Why are you working with plaque?’” Eventually, however, the researchers’ perseverance paid off.
Using spectrographic analysis – a scientific method that studies the spectrum of light – researchers were finally able to identify the substance found on the Dalheim woman’s teeth. Amazingly, it was a type of pigment known as ultramarine. According to experts, this brilliant color was once created by crushing pieces of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone.
During the Dalheim’s woman’s lifetime, approximately 1,000 years ago, lapis lazuli was very rare. In fact, it could only be sourced from a particular region in Afghanistan and was considered as valuable as gold. Moreover, its vibrant blue color meant that it was particularly treasured in the art world.
Centuries later, artists would use ultramarine to add brilliant tones to the robes of the Virgin Mary in many Renaissance paintings. And according to some, Michelangelo even ordered the pigment while painting the Sistine Chapel. However, he reportedly ran out of cash to pay for the expensive resource. So how exactly had such a valuable art supply made its way to a monastery in rural Germany?
According to historian Michael McCormick, the Dalheim woman acquired the pigment via a fascinating ancient trade route. “She was plugged into a vast global commercial network stretching from the mines of Afghanistan to her community in medieval Germany through the trading metropolises of Islamic Egypt and Byzantine Constantinople,” he said in the statement.
But while that might explain how the pigment arrived in Germany, it still does not answer the question of why. Interestingly, although rare, ultramarine was not uncommon in monasteries at the time. In fact, along with gold leaf, it was used to create illuminated manuscripts – a type of elaborately decorated text featuring brightly colored illustrations.
But although illuminated manuscripts were often created in monasteries, the use of valuable ultramarine was restricted to the most talented artists. “Only scribes and painters of exceptional skill would have been entrusted with its use,” historian Alison Beach explained in the statement. And until now, many have assumed that all of these experts were men.
According to experts, it was common for those working on medieval illuminated manuscripts to decline to sign their name on their work – likely as a gesture of humility. And apparently, this was particularly true of female scribes. However, this absence has been taken by many to indicate that women were historically missing from this line of work.
In January 2019 Radini, Warriner and their colleagues published a study detailing their findings. In it, they noted that only 15 percent of manuscripts discovered in monasteries inhabited by women had established female authors. And with those dated earlier than the 12th century, the number was even lower – less than one percent.
So how exactly did ultramarine pigment end up present on the teeth of a woman living at Dalheim monastery some 1,000 years ago? According to the study, the team considered a variety of explanations. For example, might the residue have got there via some kind of ritual that involved osculating, or kissing, a manuscript?
Apparently, the practice of ritually kissing manuscripts became widespread from the 14th century onwards. However, given the date of the remains found at Dalheim, this explanation seems unlikely. As an alternative, the study considered the possibility that the woman had ingested lapis lazuli as medicine at some point.
However, this explanation also came with its problems. Although lapis lazuli is known to have been used as a medicine since the first century, there is little evidence to suggest that ingesting the stone was a common practice in Germany at the time. Moreover, the particles found on the Dalheim woman’s teeth were very small, suggesting that they had been intentionally ground into pigment.
Furthermore, the study claims that the ultramarine pigment was distributed throughout the plaque – a pattern that suggested multiple exposures, rather than just one ingestion. As an alternative explanation, researchers also considered the possibility that the woman had come into contact with the pigment while cleaning, or that she had been involved in its preparation.
Apparently, however, this too was unlikely. According to the study, the process of refining lapis lazuli into pigment required a specific process thought to have been unique to the Arab world at the time. Therefore, it seems likely that the ultramarine arrived at the monastery was the final product, rather than something that involved preparation.
Having considered – and dismissed – a variety of different scenarios, the study concluded that there was only one likely explanation for how the pigment got onto the woman’s teeth. And if true, it’s a revelation that could transform our understanding of women’s role within the medieval world.
“Based on the distribution of the pigment in her mouth, we concluded that the most likely scenario was that she herself was painting with the pigment and licking the end of the brush while painting,” microbioarchaeologist Monica Tromp explained in the statement from the Max Planck Institute.
Amazingly, it’s not the first time that evidence has emerged to suggest that women, as well as men, may have been respected scribes in medieval society. In fact, Beach uncovered two 12th-century letters that detailed a commission undertaken by a woman known only as “N” – an inhabitant of a monastery located just 40 miles away from Dalheim.
In the letters, a monk from a male monastery asks N to produce an illuminated manuscript using luxurious materials such as silk and leather. And in the study, researchers noted the significance of such important work being outsourced to female scribes. In fact, it suggests that the women of the region might have already enjoyed a formidable reputation as artists by the 12th century.
Interestingly, Beach also discovered more evidence of female scribes using lapis lazuli as a pigment. This time, it came in the form of a German book dated to around 1200 A.D. However, this latest study represents the earliest example of the practice ever uncovered in the region.
Fascinatingly, this could have far-reaching implications for the study of women in the medieval arts. “Here we have direct evidence of a woman, not just painting, but painting with a very rare and expensive pigment, and at a very out-of-the-way place,” Warinner explained. “This woman’s story could have remained hidden forever without the use of these techniques.”
Moreover, because fire destroyed the Dalheim monastery, this find could represent the only surviving example of this kind of activity. In other words, if Radini and her coworkers had not stumbled across the pigment in the skeleton’s teeth, we might never have suspected that this community of women was known for more than their religious devotion.
For researchers, the study has fascinating implications for the future of dental calculus study. “Our work strongly points to the possibility of using microscopic particles entombed in ancient tartar to track the artists of ancient times,” Radini, Warriner and Tromp wrote in a January 2019 article for Phys.org. “It also suggests that it might be possible to track other “dusty” crafts using this method and thereby reveal the invisible workforce behind many forms of art.”
Today, the remains of the Dalheim woman have found a new home on display at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Evolutionary Medicine in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Warriner continues to examine particles frozen in ancient plaque, discovering everything from pieces of wool to opium residue hidden within. Ironically, she notes that future researchers might not have so much luck with the skeletons of today, thanks to the attentions of modern dentists. “They aren’t thinking of future archaeologists,” she jokingly complained to The Atlantic.