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Friday, January 11, 2019

Am I Brilliant Blue? Lapis Lazuli Embedded in a 1000-Year-Old Woman’s Teeth

      The earth is abundant with brown, green, red, and yellow pigments but  “finding a stable blue is like willing a river to stop flowing.” In 2017, a chemist made headlines around the world for discovering the first new blue in 2 centuries, named YInMn Blue.”

         Lapis lazuli in a 1000-year-old woman’s teeth indicate she was likely a manuscript scribe who mixed her saliva with the precious ground ultramarine or lapis lazuli as she copied ancient texts.


    In 2014, archaeologist Dr. Anita Radini was studying the dental calculus of bodies buried in a medieval church. This hardened plaque, or tartar, is a challenge to a modern dentist, but it’s crucial evidence for researchers peering into the past. While other body parts disintegrate, teeth often stubbornly remain, and the chemical components of these teeth can offer a glimpse into our daily lives.

          At the time, Dr. Radini was scraping old teeth in pursuit of calcified starches, a useful proxy for diet. Her colleague, Dr. Christina Warinner, an expert in the evolution of ancient microbes at the Max Planck Institute, hoped to better understand oral bacteria. But, something in the mouth of specimen B78 distracted both researchers from their initial pursuits: scattered specks of a brilliant blue.

     “Can you imagine the kind of cold calls we had to make in the beginning?” Dr. Warinner told The Atlantic. “‘Hi, I’m working with this thing on teeth, and it’s about 1,000 years old, and it has blue stuff in it. Can you help me?’ People thought we were crazy.”

     Drs. Warinner and Radini assembled a multidisciplinary color detection squad. Dr. Monica Tromp, a New Zealand-based expert in particle analysis with the Max Planck Institute, took on the task of identifying the blue hue’s origin. Dr. Alison Beach, a history professor at The Ohio State University, a Smith College graduate, and an expert in medieval German women’s role in copying illuminated manuscripts, offered essential cultural context. Drs. Warinner and Radini also consulted a scholar of medieval trade about the economic context in which B78 lived. What they found brought smiles to everyone’s faces

Dental calculus jaw and teeth photo

    B78, the authors determined, was a woman who lived sometime between 997 and 1162 A.D. She died in middle age, between 45 and 60 years old. Except for the blue color in her mouth, she “was otherwise unexceptional,” according to the study authors. But in a new paper published this week in the journal Scientific Advances, the color detectives showed B78 had lapis lazuli in her mouth—evidence she was a highly-skilled manuscript scribe in a time when most people assumed illumination was the exclusive domain of men.

     “It didn’t surprise me, it thrilled me,” says Dr. Beach,  co-author in the study. Dr. Beach has studied female manuscript makers since graduate school, hoping to make the public understand their role in producing some of the most elaborate artworks of the age. But because most of the volumes are unsigned—and the few that are signed were signed by men—making the case for women’s role in these spaces has always been a challenge. But the blue found in B78’s teeth is stronger evidence than one might expect.
Illuminated manuscript nun art
A self-portrait of Guda, a 12th century nun and illuminator, signed "Guda, a sinful woman, wrote and painted this book." The source of the blue-green color is unknown.
     "Blue was, is, and will continue to be the hardest color to find or create."

      In the medieval period, artists had five sources of the color: ultramarine, azurite, Egyptian blue, smalt, and vivianite. The most prized of these was ultramarine, more commonly known in its ground and purified form as lapis lazuli. Found only in one region of Afghanistan, for millennia lapis lazuli demanded the same price as gold. It wasn’t, in other words, something you’d expect to find in random medieval dental calculus. “This isn’t a kind of paint you just give to someone who’s learning,” Dr. Beach says (contrary to the suggestion of an outside reader evaluating the paper before publication, who believed the woman was just a janitor cleaning up after the real manuscript makers).

     The study entertains other possibilities—that B78 was undergoing lapidary medicine, where she swallowed pigments for her health, or that she engaged in “devotional osculation,” where Christians kissed paintings as part of worship. But the way the blue pigment was distributed deep into the teeth, in fairly consistent layers over time, indicated B78 was one of the “modest and pious women who quietly produced the books of medieval Europe,” the authors wrote. Specifically, Dr. Beach thinks B78 and her colleagues would have been narrowing the point on their fine-tipped brushes with their mouths, mixing lapis lazuli into their dental plaque in the process.

     Dr. Beach and other medieval historians are optimistic this method will apply broadly to other manuscript makers of the era. “I had never heard of using dental calculus as a window on somebody’s everyday life,” Dr. Beach says, but now that researchers know where to look, the possibilities are limitless. “There’s so few sources that medieval historians have for ordinary people. This one clue of the lapis lazuli opens a whole window on the life of an ordinary women in a period in which we have almost no sources,” Dr. Beach adds. “She’s not a queen, she’s not a duchess. She’s just a person who lived and worked and died.”

      Blue is my favorite color, Dr. Beach is a Smithie, and I enjoy mazarine minerals, especially lapis lazuli. How about you? 

       Happy Blue Year!


Nine ways to draw our ever bluer state:


  1. Smalt and vivianite are new to me. Have you heard of these blue minerals before?

  2. First woman to come with Bluetooth technology?

    Blue minerals, blue food

    And smalt and vivianite are new to me and this spell checker.

    1. eco, Bluetooth—touchĂ©!

      I thought about that blue Foods bit, too.

      Do you suppose there are small smalt smelt?

    2. I haven't smalt any in a blue moon.

    3. Universe Aligning: Martian Blueberries ~~>

    4. I remember Blue Nun from my college days.

  3. Plastocene:

  4. Did anybody else see the word smalt as part of a Jeopardy show this week? Must have been Monday night....

    1. I have not watched all week.

      ‘S malt liquor? ;-)

    2. Hmmm, it might have been on Saturday, when the local channel shows Jeopardy repeats from years gone by. Lately they've been showing the Austin Rogers run (I bet WW would be watching those!), but I didn't see that from his run.

      The word may have come up during the panelist interviews, too. I had a moderate flu and wasn't fully conscious...

    3. Hope your flu has flown, eco.

      They are doing some sort of championship team thing on Jeopardy this spring (?). Yes, I will be on Team Austin for that!

  5. Death came. I hope it is a grand adventure for Mary Oliver in the next. . .

    When death comes
    like the hungry bear in autumn;
    when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

    to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
    when death comes
    like the measle-pox

    when death comes
    like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

    I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
    what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

    And therefore I look upon everything
    as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
    and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
    and I consider eternity as another possibility,

    and I think of each life as a flower, as common
    as a field daisy, and as singular,

    and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
    tending, as all music does, toward silence,

    and each body a lion of courage, and something
    precious to the earth.

    When it's over, I want to say all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement.
    I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

    When it's over, I don't want to wonder
    if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

    I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
    or full of argument.

    I don't want to end up simply having visited this world

    Mary Oliver
    When Death Comes

  6. Zebra tattoos:

    1. “We are however convinced that these people know well the horsefly-repelling characteristic of their bodypaintings,” he added. I guess it's not feasible to ask those people if they know about the repelling characteristic?

      I'd guess the original body painters figured this out, but this practical benefit was lost to the collective memory. Similar to the kosher/ halal diets as pretty good public health codes for people without refrigeration, sanitary sewer systems (shellfish ban for kosher), and a germ theory (pigs and non-cloven hoof non cud-chewing animals carry trichinosis). I suspect understood by the writers of those codes, now followed as a religious rather than health practice.

    2. I wondered that, too. Why not just ask?

    3. I disagree, eco. The same reasoning behind kosher/halal diets is behind shunning women during menses, making outcasts out of the disabled, slavery, and all the other stupidity that's part of religious practice. The part of the Old Testament that prohibits animal cruelty is also used to justify no cheeseburgers. It's all ridiculous.

    4. On the other hand if it were widely known among the people it would probably have been mentioned in a PBS or National Geographic documentary. I doubt folks would keep this knowledge secret.

      But it still isn't hard to ask, they have internet in Africa, yes? Actually, my understanding is one of the biggest uses of solar panels in remote villages is to recharge cell phones.... access before electrification.

    5. Jan, can you clarify your thinking? I am no defender of organized religion for the reasons you mention and more - I am among the agnostic 4% in the US, the only thing that keeps me out of the atheist 3% is I can never be absolutely sure.

      But I don't see the rationale for prohibiting a readily available (shellfish) or a low-maintenance (pork) food supply.

      No morals behind it, and in between the suppression advocated in much of the scriptures there are some good common sense rules - more often than not I agree with "Thou Shalt not Kill."

      One of my Iranian clients constantly reminds me these scriptures go back to old Persian codes, as well as the code of Hammurabi, but that's a longer discussion.

    6. What I'm saying is that there's no scientific basis for biblical law. You can get just as sick from eating kosher as non-kosher animals. Menstruating women aren't unclean. It all superstition and patriarchy and fiction.

    7. That's where I'll go out on a limb and disagree - having absolutely no training in physiology or public health.

      My "gut" imagines that bottom feeding crustaceans would be eating a bunch of human excrement that's dumped into the rivers, and that would revector its way back to us.

      I also remember from my youth that pigs are better able than cows to carry a variety of harmful pathogens, trichinosis comes to mind. But that might have been from an episode of Marcus Welby.

      I'm also guessing that draining the blood from meat slows spoilage, it certainly does with jerky.

  7. Since we’ve been talking about teeth:

    1. For many years, there have been studies linking periodontal inflammation with cardiovascular disease, though several recent studies have weakened that idea. I'm leery of any article that says that any complex disease is cause by a single factor.

    2. "Now, researchers at Cortexyme, an American pharmaceutical corporation who has invested heavily in gum disease research, add even more weight to the gum disease-Alzheimer’s association."

      "The team also infected mice with gum disease, finding that the rodents acquired brain infection, along with tau and amyloid build up in regions normally affected by Alzheimer’s. When researchers exposed the mice to a substance previously developed by Cortexyme that blocks the production of gum disease-related toxins, infection was reduced and protein plaque accumulation stopped. Some damaged neurons even recovered."

      Gee, why are my skeptic hairs standing on end?

    3. I know, I know. But, I still flossed extra long this week.

  8. The following is from this week's Scout Report. Interesting, but what could possibly go wrong with re-engineering the protein on which all life on Earth depends?


    Scientists Have 'Hacked Photosynthesis' In Search Of More Productive Crops

    Plants botch photosynthesis 20% of the time. Fixing that could change agriculture

    Fixing photosynthesis by engineering it to recycle a toxic mistake

    Synthetic glycolate metabolism pathways stimulate crop growth and productivity in the field

    Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE)

    Lesson plan: Modeling Photosynthesis and Cellular Respiration

    Through photosynthesis, plants are able to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into sugars for energy, helpfully releasing breathable oxygen as a byproduct. However, the enzyme most plants use in this process, a molecule known as RuBisCo, mistakes oxygen for carbon dioxide about 20 percent of the time, accidentally creating a toxic compound that plants subsequently have to detoxify through photorespiration, reducing their growth efficiency. New research may have developed a solution to this. In early January 2019, a team of scientists in an international research group called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), based at the University of Illinois, published a scientific paper detailing how they had successfully used genetic engineering on experimental tobacco plants, enabling them to use a more efficient "shortcut" in their photosynthesis process. This shortcut fixes the RuBisCo enzyme's weakness and thus allows the tobacco plants to grow approximately 40 percent larger than unmodified ones. The implications of this increased efficiency are potentially huge, particularly for agricultural food crops like soybeans and cowpeas, and it is there that the researchers are focusing next. [JDC]

    At the first three links, readers will find recent news articles explaining the study and its implications. The first article, written by Dan Charles for NPR, also includes a three-minute radio segment on the story. The second article, written by Zoe Schlanger for Quartz, includes with its explanations multiple photographs of the researchers' test subjects. For those interested in a slightly more in-depth explanation, Ars Technica provides this in the third article, written by science editor and former biological researcher John Timmer. At the fourth link, readers will find the researchers' full academic article published in the journal Science. Curious to learn more about RIPE's work and other research projects? Follow the fifth link to the research group's official website. Finally, educators who would like to introduce this story into their classrooms may be interested in the sixth link, where they will find a hands-on lesson plan on photosynthesis and respiration created for students in grades 5-10. This standards-aligned lesson plan, which comes from the California Academy of Sciences, includes three sets of learning expectations and core ideas to accommodate the different grade levels.

  9. Replies
    1. (I actually have no problem getting my science from a comic strip. Or my philosophy.)

    2. Indeed, jan, science and philosophy from comic strips are often the best kind of science and philosophy. Pithy.

      Speaking of pithy, I have now added “Nine Ways to Divide Colorado” to the end of this post (in case you can’t read my teeny tiny thumbnail image.)

    3. I miss Pogo.

      I also remember the first time I drove into Colorado, passing through beautiful (if sublime) gold and brown plains of tall grasslands - late July, not many flowers. Then suddenly smacked in the eye by an emerald green golf course.

      30 years ago, I can't remember if I was on Hwy 14 or 34, and I don't see the golf course on Google Maps. I think it was before all those irrigation circles existed. And if I was on 34 it was certainly before all that development, it was pretty sparse until very close to I-25 (I was heading to Fort Collins). I remember passing a small town, either Greeley or Ault, but no jumbo strip malls that exist now. Ahhh.

  10. Replies
    1. ^^^Flash

      And that meteorite could be lunar or terrestrial. Intriguing, but I am not convinced.

  11. When visiting Tehran you should bring your hijab, but don't bring your dog!

    1. It's too easy to find images on the web of dogs wearing hijabs, or "barkas", as some call them.

    2. Maizie and I have no Tehran plans, thankfilly.

    3. ^^^Thankfully. My U is still stuck.

  12. YOLO? Do you mean YLOO? >>>

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Another reason to not go jogging. My sloth protects predators.

    1. Do you tell your pet sloth, "I don't have to be able to run faster than a mountain lion. I just have to run faster than you."?

    2. What if I can't run faster than my pet sloth?

    3. Then, the three of you are up a tree.

  15. Rosalind Franklin Mars Rover!


  16. The magnetic North Pole keeps shifting. But why do we need to keep repainting airport runway numbers, and, more to the point, keep redesignating all the associated published FAA airport diagrams, aeronautical navigation charts, instrument approach and departure procedures, etc.? The magnetic declination has always appeared on all charts; why not just agree worldwide to designate runways based on their geographic, rather than magnetic, heading? That way, when the declination changes, all you have to change is the published declination, rather than the designation of every runway.

    1. I think many navigational devices still use magnetic bearings, especially in smaller planes. And I really don't want pilots to be doing the mathematical interpolations in their head while trying to land.

      Interestingly, the magnetic declination for my fair city is now 13°23', as I recall it used to be ~16°.

    2. For those staying up at night wondering about magnetic declination, NOAA has a website that shows magnetic declination over time, from 1590 to 2020. And for the moment I feel like I'm not losing my mind, the declination for SF/ Berkeley was just a hair under 16° east of north 30 years ago, this map shows it as +/-13.4° today. Time to go to Room 101 for reorientation.

      Denver was about 11.3°, and is now a mere 8.1°, you are a shifty lot. For the Jersey Boy trying not to get lost at Wildwood (no doubt Jan knows about that), it was about 11.3° west of north, and now is just a bit over 12°.

    3. Last thought: Does this prove the decline and fall of Western Civilization?

    4. My, what magnetic personalities you have, jan and eco! That’s a very cool site, eco. I could spend far too much time there. And the magnetic declination would change if I did so ;-).

    5. I cruise Google Earth or Google Maps if I can’t sleep. Now, I have a new toy to add to the mix.

    6. For pilots navigating the old-fashioned way, there's plenty of conversion from geographic to magnetic headings anyway. Changing runway designation from magnetic to geographic would be a one-time headache that would save all future headaches resulting from changing declination.

    7. Speaking as a non-pilot who has only occasionally been in a small plane, wouldn't that require the pilot to make a mathematical conversion from the magnetic bearing that their plane shows to the geographic heading on the runway? Especially difficult for a pilot landing someplace they've never been before, where they won't know the local declination.

      18 months ago the Stanley ID little airstrip had more planes land in one week than they typically have all year - all to see the eclipse. I suspect 95% of the pilots had never been there before, and many may have flown up there on a whim. One of my clients used to fly 120 miles, land, have lunch, and then fly back. Not much planning involved.

      And small plane pilots aren't always the brightest lights in the candelabra.... lots of amateurs, lots of mistakes.

    8. The declination doesn't change much over the distance of a typical light plan hop. And airports typically don't have so many runways that a pilot would be confused by a difference between magnetic and geographic heading.

    9. I have no idea how much the runway markings matter.

      Cleveland to Chicago (316 air miles) is about 4.5° difference. I once passenged from DC to Durham (225 miles) and back in an evening in a Cessna 152, so that kind of hop isn't unreasonable.

    10. 4.5° isn't much of a heading difference. Runways are designated 1 through 36 by their heading to the nearest 10 degrees. (Runway 36 points to the magnetic North, 18 is the number painted at the opposite end of the same runway.)