Archaeological Discovery of Rare Blue Pigment in Medieval Skeleton Suggests New Anthropological Data

Scientists who were recently studying the teeth of medieval skeletons had hoped to learn a little more about the diets of the Middle Ages. Through examination of the teeth and jaw of one woman, however, they found something quite revealing, but it has nothing to do with diet.  

These scientists found hundreds of tiny blue flecks which they determined to be ultramarine.  More importantly, this color could have only been derived from lapis lazuli.  And more important than that, they knew that lapis lazuli was a rare and very expensive stone—originating from one sole region of Afghanistan—that was commonly ground into powder for making dye which was used to write sacred manuscripts. 

While the discovery of pigments and stone—even rare ones—are not that novel, this particularly discovery is quite interesting because it was found inside the jaw of a woman. You see, male monks were typically the ones to work on these sacred texts; and, thus, would be more apt to possess lapis lazuli.  The discovery of lapis lazuli—and at such a notable volume—within this woman’s mouth suggests, then, that women may have also been involved with this responsibility. 

Now, lapis lazuli is so rare that was—at least long ago—often considered as equally valuable as gold.  Its most notable historical use was to color the Virgin Mary’s robes in various types of artwork throughout the centuries.  But history suggests that it was not only male monks who wrote with the striking blue pigment, but nuns, perhaps, as well.

This particular nun would have probably lived between 997 and 1162, according to radiocarbon dating of the teeth.  Also, they found her buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. 

But the discovery of the precious blue gem inside human teeth is not just special in and of itself.  Indeed, this discovery implies that perhaps other fibers, metals, and dyes could also be preserved in the tartar of teeth.  Tartar, of course, is the natural yellow gunk on teeth which dental plaque hardens into; and it is generally regarded, at least in modern times, as something unsightly, something we don’t want. 

In the case of research, though, being able to find such things embedded into tartar actually opens up new avenues in archaeology.