Washington, June 28 : Monks who wrote Biblical texts and other religious materials might have died out of exposure to toxic mercury, with which the red colour ink they used for scripting was made, according to a study.
Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a University of Southern Denmark scientist at the Institute of Physics and Chemistry, believes that the ink might have been the culprit.
He came to this conclusion after studying medieval bones from six different Danish cemeteries.
The researcher says that his study also describes a previously undocumented disease called FOS, which was like leprosy and caused skull lesions.
Besides that, about 79 per cent of the interred individuals with leprosy, and 35 per cent with syphilis, had received medicines containing mercury.
Lund Rasmussen has discovered that the monks buried in the cloister walk of the Cistercian Abbey, though not having any of such diseases, had mercury in their bones.
It suggests that the monks might have been contaminated either while preparing and administering medicines or while writing the artistic letter of incunabula (pre-1500 A.D. books), says the researcher.
During the study, Lund Rasmussen and his team drilled bone samples from the buried individuals, some of which were also friars buried in the cloister walk of the Franciscan Friary in Svendborg.
The researchers found that the friars did not show any signs of mercury poisoning, unlike the monks.
The study also took into account the fact that some of the medieval individuals ate a mostly marine, fish-filled diet.
The researchers, however, say that modern seafood may contain high levels of mercury out of environmental pollution, but exposure from food would have been unlikely during the medieval period.
Lund Rasmussen says that mercury "was used (in the ink) in the first place because cinnabar (a type of mercury) has this bright red, beautiful colour."
A separate study by Israeli scientists recently found cinnabar on four fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include passages from the Hebrew Bible.
"(Even today) one should really not touch, or much less rub, the parchment pages of an incunabulum," Discovery News quoted Lund Rasmussen as warning.
He also said that his co-author Jesper Lier Boldsen discovered the previously undocumented disease FOS while examining the skeletons.
"We do not know if FOS was fatal, but it certainly looks painful and just as severe as leprosy," he Lund Rasmussen said.
The study will be published in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.