A Woman’s Work Was Sometimes Blue | Modern Society of USA

A Woman’s Work Was Sometimes Blue

A Woman’s Work Was Sometimes Blue

Anita Radini, an archaeologist at the University of York, in England, spends a lot of time looking at tartar. Really old tartar.

Tartar, or dental plaque — that film of bacteria that feels like sweaters on your teeth — contains a wealth of information about what long-dead individuals encountered in their daily lives. Dr. Radini has seen all sorts of things trapped in it: food particles, textile fibers, DNA, pollen, bacteria and even wings of tiny insects.

But several years ago, when studying the dental plaque of a nun from medieval Germany, Dr. Radini saw something entirely new: particles of a brilliant blue. She showed the findings to Christina Warinner, another tartar expert, who was shocked.

“They looked like little robins’ eggs, they were so bright,” said Dr. Warinner, group leader of archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany. “I remember being dumbfounded.”

The skeleton of B78 dates to sometime between 997 and 1162 A.D. The nun was probably 45 to 60 years old when she died, and was buried in an unmarked grave near a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. Historians know little else about the site, because almost all of it was destroyed by a fire in the 14th century.

Dr. Radini first noticed traces of blue when she immersed a sample of B78’s tartar in a weak acid solution. Scientists use this method to dissolve calcified tartar, so they can study any remaining food, pollen or other particles.

At the time, blue pigment “was as, or more, valuable than the gold applied to manuscripts,” Dr. Beach said. Only five percent of the lapis lazuli used in the production process is converted into pigment, and the material would have had to travel through thousands of miles of trade routes to reach Europe.

The pigment likely ended up on the woman’s teeth as she used her mouth to shape her paintbrush. The researchers found ultramarine layered throughout B78’s dental plaque, which suggests that she painted many books in her lifetime.

“We struggle to find sources reflecting women’s lives in the Middle Ages that aren’t filtered through men’s experiences or opinions about what women’s lives should have been,” Dr. Beach said. “Now, we have a direct piece of evidence about what this woman did on a day-to-day basis — all because they didn’t brush their teeth.”

“I have a new relationship with my Sonicare now.”

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