Blue pigment found in the dental records of a medieval skeleton challenges assumptions about the gendered production of religious texts.

Archaeologists recently unearthed the bones of a female artist who probably lived in the 11th or early 12th century at a small monastery in Lichtenau, Germany.

Her remains, which include tiny flecks of lapis lazuli caught in her teeth, suggest a woman between the ages of 45 and 60, who spent her days painting illustrated manuscripts.

Little else is known about the mysterious lady or her life at the Dalheim abbey, according to Christina Warinner, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

While examining the teeth of skeletons from the community’s cemetery, she and her colleagues spotted something blue in one of their samples.

“It was absolutely unbelievable,” Warinner told Ohio public radio station WOSU. “It almost looked like there were robins’ eggs on the microscope slide. They were such vibrant blue particles.

“I remember joking around at the time that maybe we discovered an artist painting with lapis lazuli,” she said in a statement.

The idea seemed absurd: After all, lapis lazuli was one of the Middle Ages’ most expensive pigments, imported to Europe from Afghanistan, and used primarily by acclaimed artists. (Think Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.)

Upon closer inspection, the team confirmed those microscopic particles as mineral structure—a deep blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone.

“Once it all came together that this was lapis lazuli, and this was a woman, and she was in this kind of small, remote place, really far away from where this lapis lazuli would have come from or been traded from, it was pretty extraordinary,” Warinner said.

Still, how the pigment ended up on the woman’s teeth remains unclear.

The most likely explanation is that, like many modern painters, she was simply wetting the brush, bringing it to a fine point: Each time she shoved the bristles in her mouth, a bit of residue remained on the teeth.

It’s also possible she produced her own materials—i.e. ground lapis lazuli into a workable pigment, creating a fine dust that ends up on the lips and saliva.

“It is a brand new kind of evidence for scribal activity, and one that we haven’t been on the alert for,” according to Vanderbilt University’s Cynthia Cyrus, who has studied medieval scribes associated with women’s convents, but was not part of this research team.

“We now know that evidence from teeth, and other skeletal remains, can really point toward what the daily life of a particular monastery was like,” she continued. “That will lead us to ask different questions when we’re doing excavations and combine different kinds of evidence to get a better understanding.”

The findings were published this week in the journal Science Advances.

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