History of Asbestos Pt. 1: Asbestos in the Ancient World

It’s hard to believe asbestos was only recognized to be toxic a little over a century ago. This is an organic mineral that was already being mined when the Great Pyramids were built, and yet for thousands of years humanity handled it without the slightest of precautions.

Today, we know asbestos is highly dangerous and the primary cause of mesothelioma, one of the most lethal cancers in existence. That bit of knowledge is a privilege of the modern era. We’re now blessed with the scientific and medical understanding to inform policies that, even a hundred years ago, would have seemed impossible.

And yet, in the United States, asbestos remains legal to use. Millions of people are needlessly exposed to asbestos every year, and efforts to fully ban the substance gain little traction.

So then why, despite overwhelming evidence about its dangers, is asbestos still freely imported and distributed in the United States? How is asbestos still responsible for the deaths of up to 40,000 Americans every year? Why was asbestos so widely used in the first place? What even is asbestos?

In this five-part series, we’re going to use a bit of history to try and address those questions. We’ll start in ancient times, then move forward to explore how successive cultures made use of this mineral.

Hopefully, by the last installment, we’ll have mapped out the life and history of asbestos, revealing how timeless motivations like greed, power and ignorance were enough to sustain its use and doom those exposed to it.

Asbestos in the Bronze Age

Evidence suggests the first asbestos mines were built in Greece and Cyprus around 3,000 B.C.E. For context, another 500 years would pass before the Great Pyramids of Giza were built. It’s not clear how much the ancient civilizations knew of asbestos’s toxic properties. Being an era of slave labor and short lifespans, it’s possible that slave masters simply did not care about the health of lowly miners.

What is clear is that many different societies throughout history were captivated by asbestos’s seemingly magical nature. As a fibrous mineral, asbestos was woven into fabrics to create a fire-resistant cloth. It was this seemingly magical property that made asbestos such a coveted material for ceremonial rituals. Nothing advertises spiritual immortality like a flame-resistant burial shroud.

While the ancient Egyptians embalmed pharaohs with asbestos to endow them with a kind of fiery resilience, the ancient Persians used fire-resistant asbestos cloth to contain and preserve cremation ashes. It’s also believed that the Greeks and Cyprians used the mineral in the weaving of hats, shoes and candle wicks.

There is also strong evidence that the ancient Scandinavian people of modern-day Finland used asbestos in pottery and hut construction.

The First Histories

History became less cloudy in the Greek and Roman eras, when the written word, papyrus scrolls and complex postal networks allowed for more texts to survive into modern times. By the first century A.D., many of those ancient ceremonial practices involving asbestos were well known to Roman historians.

The Roman author Pliny the Elder described in his writings a linen cloth that was used by, what was to him, the ancient Greeks. Called “abestinon,” the incombustible fabric possessed the tantalizing ability to ward off magic spells.

Years later, Pliny’s nephew took a more rational approach to the study of these ancient materials. He reported on a detrimental health condition among slaves who mined asbestos. He even discouraged the purchase of slaves who had worked in these mines, claiming they tend to “die young” from a range of lung ailments.

The morals of the age, it seemed, still belonged to a more ancient one.

The Birth of a Party Trick

A few centuries later, asbestos was still revered for its miraculous properties but no better understood. Writing in the fourth century AD, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, made reference to a mysterious substance from India that could be woven into fabrics to cheat death.

The bishop, Athanasius, even likened asbestos to Christ’s conquest of death, writing:

“The natural property of fire is to burn. Suppose, then, that there was a substance such as the Indian asbestos is said to be, which had no fear of being burnt, but rather displayed the impotence of the fire by proving itself unburnable. If anyone doubted the truth of this, all he need do would be to wrap himself up in the substance in question and then touch the fire.”

As Rome began to collapse and new empires vied for power in the vacuum that formed, asbestos lost its ceremonial significance and became more of a novelty. Asbestos cloths and materials were often used as a sort of party trick, meant to wow travelers from foreign lands.

Eventually, the industrial appeal of asbestos began to lose its luster. With the collapse of Roman currency, estates suddenly lacked the means to mine asbestos on a practical scale. At the same time, the literature surrounding the mineral grew murky, with some scribes taking pains to even identify its source — be it mines in India or salamanders in Mongolia.

Asbestos in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages saw the advent of a new economic system, feudalism, which found novel uses for this ancient mineral. All of a sudden, this seemingly magical mineral was being used for decidedly non-magical purposes, like building homes, crafting armor and perfecting siege weaponry.

If you can imagine flaming bags of tar, laced with asbestos and catapulted over the walls of an enemy castle, then you’re beginning to think like a medieval conqueror. In our next installment, we’ll step into that medieval mindset, finding an era when asbestos grew from a ceremonial novelty into a weapon of war.

(Coming Soon) Visit our next installments on the history of asbestos by clicking on any of the links below:

  • History of Asbestos, Pt. 2: Asbestos in the Middle Ages
  • History of Asbestos, Pt. 3: Asbestos in the Industrial Age
  • History of Asbestos, Pt. 4: Asbestos From Its Heyday to the Era of Regulation
  • History of Asbestos, Pt. 5: Asbestos in the Present Day
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