1001 Uses For Dental Floss # 62- A Woman Scribe Got The Blues


A Woman Scribe Got The Blues

You may recall the name–Dr. Christina Warinner, who is an anthropologist, last mentioned in these pages (1001 Uses #4) because she discovered that ancient humans used one type of grass to floss their teeth. Well, here she is again, this time with colleague Anna Radini of the University of York in England, still studying dental calculus, AKA tartar, but on the teeth of a medieval woman’s skeleton. 

What is special about this woman and this skeleton, and these teeth? Well, this anonymous woman’s remains were disinterred from the graveyard of a monastery of a small religious community at Dalheim, Germany. And what they did at this monastery was create illuminated manuscripts. 

Monastery–monks, right? Wrong, sort of. It turns out that this woman was somehow involved with creating these illuminated manuscripts. You know the ones, those beautifully illustrated hand-written biblical texts displaying fanciful brightly multicoloured drawings of saints and demons and dragons along their margins and decorated with real gold foil. 

That’s not done anymore, not since Johannes Gutenberg put an end to all that when he invented the printing press and inaugurated the Age of the Book (I made that title up, but he did do that.) Anyway, I digress. Back to the blue dye.

Anyway, what does that have to do with anything? It turns out that this woman’s teeth had tartar (there were no dental hygienists around in those years to scrape it off–that’s why they called them the Dark Ages- no, not really) on them. And no one flossed, as far as I know. 

These researchers found that the tartar had a striking blue coloration which turned out to be lapis lazuli, a mineral which was ground to a powder and used in these illuminations.

Well, okay, so what? Well, not only that, but the coloration was unevenly distributed on her teeth, so it’s not like she was inhaling the powder while grinding it or from kissing the Bible at the monastery. There was more of the blue tint on her front teeth than in the back, and this suggests that she was probably using a brush, and licked it to make a fine point of the bristles, and in the process picked up some of the lapis lazuli on her teeth.And this means that she was one of the artists creating these illustrations. 

The only question I have is, why weren’t there any other dyes on her teeth, since other coloured minerals were also used? I don’t have the answer to that question, except maybe this woman specialized in applying this particular colour (like in an assembly line, an innovation supposedly invented by Henry Ford in the early 1900s.) 

Maybe further testing will find other dyes on other skeleton’s teeth in that cemetery. We’ll just have to wait with bated breath for the answer to this question.

In the meantime, floss regularly. And visit your dental hygienist at least twice a year. You don’t want some future archeologist checking out your teeth one day in the far future. I’m sure you have secrets you’d rather no one knew anything about.