Teeth and Bones: Doctor Anita Radini and Her Investigations of Ancient Civilizations
Christiana I. Killian, Ph.D.
The usual image of a medieval scribe is of a tonsured monk bending over an intricate manuscript: a labor of love and an artistic triumph that transfers knowledge from one generation to the next. But always – a man.
Doctor Anita Radini, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Medical Humanities in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York in Great Britain, (upper left) has just demonstrated that this is not the whole picture. She proved, in fact, that the production of medieval manuscripts also involved women, by examining the skeletal remains of one medieval woman in particular: to be more specific, by examining her teeth.
Doctor Radini has done over 15 years of extensive fieldwork investigating the interactions between ancient people and their environment. She has concentrated her work on an analysis of dental calculus of ancient skeletons in order to understand more about their health and nutrition. Her discoveries are remarkable. In this, her most recent work, she focused on the burial grounds of a community of religious women in the Rhineland-Palatinate area of what is now Germany.[i] She points out that far from being illiterate, as early as the eighth century religious women were able to read and write, and were producing manuscripts of exceptional quality by the 12th century. Indeed, she reminds us that some of these women lived in dual sex monasteries, (Admont in Salzburg and Wessobrunnin Bavaria) working as female scribes.
The skeleton in Doctor Radini’s latest paper had belonged to a woman who, according to radiocarbon dating, lived between the early 11th century, and the mid 12th century. In examining her teeth, Dr. Radini found brilliant blue particles which she identified as lapis lazuli, an exceedingly rare stone in the middle ages which was used to make the pigment which appeared in brilliant blue seen in the sea and skies of medieval manuscripts, and in the robes of the Virgin Mary.
The fact these tiny particles (pictured above) lodged in the teeth of this woman proved she had intimate contact with this pigment, which at the time was literally worth its weight in gold. During the time she was alive, lapis was only mined at one spot in what is now Afghanistan. It would have been brought on a months-long journey from Afghanistan along the ‘silk roads’ through the Middle East and Turkey and across eastern Europe into modern day Germany– a trip of almost 4,000 miles, made on horseback or on foot.
Such a valuable commodity would not have been in the hands – much less the teeth – of anyone but the most accomplished artists of a community. The only possible explanation for its presence would be from mixing the particles into liquid pigment and inhaling them, or – more likely – from repeatedly putting the brush in one’s mouth to sharpen the tip. As Radini concludes, “this woman represents the earliest direct evidence of ultramarine pigment usage by a religious woman in Germany” and also should alter the way we imagine who produced these beautiful manuscripts.
Among Doctor Radini’s many astonishing revelations is her work on an analysis of the contents of ceramic vessels and human bones in a cemetery at Kukruse in Estonia.[ii] She demonstrated that there was a gender and to some extent an age-specific diet among the members of that community: older females and males ate more fish, while younger females fed on more herbivorous animals. The analyses of the skeletal remains corresponded to the material in vessels buried with them, suggesting that there was a symmetry of diet during life with the food prepared as grave gifts to the dead. As she puts it, “the pot as grave good was a personal belonging with direct individual connotations.” Even more interesting, perhaps, is her postulating that because the diets of men and older women were similar, that the latter might have occupied a more revered place in that community.
[i] Radini A, Tromp M, Beacfh A. Medieval women’s early involvement in manuscript production suggested by lapis lazuli identification in dental calculus. Anthropology. Science Advances: 5:2019.
[ii] Oras E, Torv M, Jonuks T et al. Social food here and hereafter: Multiproxy analysis of gender-specific food consumption in conversion period inhumantion cemetery at Kukruse, NE-Estonia. Journal of Archeological Sconce 97 (90-101.2018.
Marianne J. Legato, MD, Ph. D. (hon. c.), FACP is an internationally renowned academic, physician, author, lecturer, and pioneer in the field of gender-specific medicine. She is a Professor Emerita of Clinical Medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and an Adjunct Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Dr. Legato is also the Director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine, which she founded in 2006 as a continuation of her work with The Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University. She received an honorary PhD from the University of Panama in 2015 for her work on the differences between men and women.
At its core, gender-specific medicine is the science of how normal human biology differs between men and women and how the diagnosis and treatment of disease differs as a function of gender. Dr. Legato’s discoveries and those of her colleagues have led to a personalization of medicine that assists doctors worldwide in understanding the difference in normal function of men and women and in their sex-specific experiences of the same diseases.
She began her work in gender-specific medicine by authoring the first book on women and heart disease, The Female Heart: The Truth About Women and Coronary Artery Disease, which won the Blakeslee Award of the American Heart Association in 1992. Because of this research, the cardiovascular community began to include women in clinical trials affirming the fact that the risk factors, symptoms, and treatment of the same disease can be significantly different between the sexes. Convinced that the sex-specific differences in coronary artery disease were not unique, Dr. Legato began a wide-ranging survey of all medical specialties and in 2004, published the first textbook on gender-specific medicine, The Principles of Gender-Specific Medicine. The second edition appeared in 2010 and the third edition, dedicated to explaining how gender impacts biomedical investigation in the genomic era, won the PROSE Award in Clinical Medicine from the Association of American Publishers in 2018. A fourth edition is forthcoming.
She also founded the first scientific journals publishing new studies in the field, The Journal of Gender-Specific Medicine, and a newer version, Gender Medicine, both listed in the Index Medicus of the National Library of Medicine. She has founded a third peer-reviewed, open access journal, Gender and the Genome, which focuses on the impact of biological sex on technology and its effects on human life.
Dr. Legato is the author of multiple works, including: What Women Need to Know (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Eve’s Rib (Harmony Books, 2002), Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget (Rodale, 2005), Why Men Die First (Palgrave, 2008), The International Society for Gender Medicine: History and Highlights (Academic Press, 2017), and most recently, The Plasticity of Sex (Academic Press, 2020). Her books have been translated into 28 languages to date.
As an internationally respected authority on gender medicine, Dr. Legato has chaired symposia and made keynote addresses to world congresses in gender-specific medicine in Berlin, Israel, Italy, Japan, Panama, South Korea, Stockholm, and Vienna. In collaboration with the Menarini Foundation, she is co-chairing a symposium on epigenetics, Sex, Gender and Epigenetics: From Molecule to Bedside, to be held in Spring 2021 in Italy. She maintains one of the only gender-specific private practice in New York City, and she has earned recognition as one of the “Top Doctors in New York.”