Recently, we have learned that tartar is a window into the past. Because of the truth of holistic dentistry, this window lets us see many details about life in the past that we couldn’t understand before.
And now it’s revealing details that can upend our entire view of the history of work. New discoveries show that a woman likely worked illuminating medieval texts, something that is commonly associated with monks and male scribes. This causes us to wonder how many women might have participated in this amazing artistic tradition.
Why Tartar Can Reveal So Much
It is only recently that we’ve begun to analyze tartar from the past, but we’ve found that the amount of information it contains is amazing. That’s because, in the words of one researcher, “It’s actually the only part of your body that fossilizes while you’re still alive.”
It’s hard to appreciate that statement if you don’t know what tartar is. Tartar, also called dental calculus, is essentially hardened plaque. Plaque is residue on your teeth, a combination of food particles, oral bacteria, and the biofilm bacteria produce to help stick to your teeth and protect themselves from saliva. Saliva naturally contains minerals such as calcium that are there to help your teeth repair themselves. Plaque absorbs these minerals and turns into a hard, stone-like material, preserving bacteria and making a record of many things in your environment, including your diet, but also exposures you receive from your environment, including your occupation.
Bright Blue Particles in Plaque
And that’s what researchers found when they analyzed the plaque of this woman who was buried at Dalheim, Germany, around 1000 AD. When they looked at her tartar under a microscope, they were surprised to discover blue particles trapped in the tartar.
When they first considered the idea that the blue particles might be lapis lazuli, they dismissed the idea. Although lapis lazuli was a blue pigment used in the period, it was one of the most expensive pigments available. The color it produced was called “ultramarine” because the pigment had to come from beyond the sea. At the time, the only source of it was in Afghanistan, which was a long, painful trek for commercial goods coming to Germany at the time. Therefore, only the most trusted artists were able to work with it.
Before they concluded that the source of the blue pigment really was lapis lazuli, they analyzed its chemical structure. They found that it was in fact lapis lazuli, which led them to the next big question: why was it in a woman’s tartar?
A Forgotten Artist
Researchers also considered multiple reasons why the pigment might be in the woman’s tartar. One explanation they considered was that the woman might have gotten it from kissing illuminated manuscripts, a devotional practice that people did at the time. However, they rejected this explanation because a person would have to do a lot of text kissing to get that much pigment in their tartar. It seems that at that point, it would be very destructive to the precious texts and might not be allowed.
Researchers also considered that the woman might have taken it as medicine. There were many crazy remedies going around that included many minerals. However, there is no record of this particular remedy at the time. It’d also be a very expensive remedy. The most important evidence against this, though, was that it would distribute the pigment evenly through the mouth, but this woman had it mostly at the front of her mouth.
What they settled on was that the woman likely got it in her mouth because she moistened the brush in her mouth. This common practice would have helped point the bristles, but it would have allowed small amounts of lapis lazuli to enter the mouth at the front, where it would be deposited in her tartar.
Researchers say that this means we should reconsider the role of women in creating illuminated texts. It was thought that women didn’t do it very often because less than 1% of all texts are signed by women. However, most of the texts are actually anonymous, and women might have been more likely to avoid signing their name. We don’t know who actually produced these texts, and many of them could have been women.
Don’t Wear Your History in Your Teeth
This find reminds us of one of the vital principles of holistic dentistry: everything in your environment can have an impact on your teeth. Taking care of your teeth is about more than just brushing and flossing, it’s about following a tooth-healthy lifestyle, including eating a good diet and seeing the dentist regularly.
Your dentist can also help you deal with the fossils in your mouth. Regular home hygiene can’t remove tartar, but a professional cleaning can. And it’s important because those rocks on your teeth can provide shelter for oral bacteria to grow, leading to gum disease, cavities, and other health problems.