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.