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Tracing the Artful Roots of Asbestos

Friday, April 11, 2014

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California researchers say they have discovered one of the earliest uses of asbestos—12th-century wall-painting finish coatings.

Byzantine monks used chrystotile fibers (white asbestos) to complete their religious frescoes at the monastery Enkleistra of St. Neophytos in Cyprus, according to University of California, Los Angeles archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, Live Science reported.

Asbestos is a mineral fiber that occurs in rock and soil. It has been banned in many countries and is classified as a known human carcinogen.

Byzantine monks
Ioanna Kakoulli / UCLA

Byzantine monks used asbestos to add shine to religious artwork, new research shows.

But long before the dangers were fully known, asbestos was apparently the go-to material for a variety of needs.

Some of the other early known uses of the material include wraps for embalmed Egyptian pharaohs, wicks, clay pots, and insulation for suits of armor.

“It has long been thought that asbestos fibers, which are corrosion- and combustion-resistant, were first integrated into such things as plaster, finish coatings and floors after the Industrial Revolution,” Live Science noted.

However, the new discovery points to the material's use in coatings long before the 19th century.

Details of the findings were published in the April 2014 Journal of Archaeological Science.

Likely Used for Shine

The UCLA scientists were investigating the technological process used to create the monastery paintings when they made the unexpected discovery.

They found a rich layer of the mineral fiber in between a red paint layer and a plaster layer of the painting “Enthroned Christ,”  according to the report.

Monastery
http://www.visitpafos.org.cy

The monks are thought to have traded for the asbestos, as the main deposits are located nearly 40 miles from the monastery.

Kakoulli said the monks probably used the fibrous material “to give more shine and different properties to” the artwork.

Not a ‘Casual Decision’

“It definitely wasn’t a casual decision—they must have understood the properties of the material,” she told Live Science.

The monks also may have traded for the asbestos as the main deposits of the material in Cyprus are located 38 miles from the monastery, she said.

“The discovery raises many questions, such as why the asbestos was used in this context (and only for the red frame in the painting),” Live Science said.  “It's also curious why the fibrous material apparently wasn't used again in coatings until the 19th century.”

The team plans to revisit other monasteries to see if the material was also used there, as the material could be easily overlooked.

For more information on the research, see Kakoulli’s Project Grant Report.

About Asbestos

Asbestos is commonly used in a variety of building construction materials. In the United States, roofing products are the leading end market for asbestos, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

CDC
CDC

Asbestos is commonly used in a variety of building construction materials. When disturbed by repair, remodeling or demolition, microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and other serious health problems.

When disturbed by repair, remodeling or demolition, microscopic asbestos fibers become airborne and can be inhaled into the lungs, where they can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and other serious health problems.

Ancient Greeks were said to have named the mineral “asbestos,” meaning inextinguishable, according to a report by the University of Montana.

The Greeks may have even had an inkling of asbestos's down side: Early writings note that slaves who wove asbestos into cloth suffered from a “sickness of the lungs.”

   

Tagged categories: Asbestos; Coating chemistry; Coatings technology; Conservation; Murals; Wallcovering

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