Traces of Lapis Lazuli and other meaningful revelations

When I recently came across an article titled, “Why a Medieval Woman Had Lapis Lazuli Hidden in Her Teeth,” I had to read it. The subtitle, “An analysis of dental plaque illuminates the forgotten history of female scientists,” made it doubly intriguing. While stories about plaque are not usually my go-to reading material, the reference to “a forgotten history” attracted me.

Dr. Anita Radini, an archeological scientist, studying the dental tartar of a set of thousand-year-old teeth, discovered that they contained traces of the pigment ultramarine, ground from lapis lazuli. This pigment was very costly a thousand years ago, was found in only one area in Afghanistan and, as the article explained, is what gave, “the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color” in the beautiful illuminated manuscripts the medieval Monks painted.

lapis lazuli

But these teeth belonged to a woman! How could she have gotten the pigment in her teeth?

She had to be a painter and a great one to be able to use such a costly pigment, Dr. Radini reasoned. The more she investigated, the more evidence she uncovered of a forgotten history; these exquisite manuscripts were not only created by the monks, but women––nuns––had painted them too! The woman who’d stained her teeth had either licked the tip of her paint brush to wet it or had inhaled powder from the lapis lazuli as she ground it to make the pigment.

This small story of one woman’s life is having an unanticipated impact on our understanding of the period in which she lived. And reading it reinforced my belief that each person’s life is a unique story worth telling, not to be forgotten.

I have enjoyed working with many people who, as they write their books, uncover ideas and memories that, like those traces of lapis lazuli, lead to very meaningful realizations about their lives, their work, and the contributions they’ve made that might otherwise have been overlooked or forgotten. The impact these stories will have, whether written for a broad audience or for one’s family, can never be fully anticipated. It’s a great lesson to learn from thousand year old teeth.