Ancient Asbestos

Jan 4, 2017

The usage of asbestos has been documented since antiquity. Before its usage in modern building materials, asbestos was used in pottery, clothing, and even ceremonial items throughout the world. Many ancient civilizations used asbestos because of its amazing properties which included fire resistance and the ability to be woven and integrated into many objects.

In ancient Finland, many of the clay pots that were used had asbestos embedded in them. This was possibly added to the pots for its fire-resistance and strengthening of the pots. The asbestos found in Finnish pottery contained Anthophyllite asbestos, unlike Chrysotile asbestos which was commonly used in most modern building materials. The Anthophyllite was possibly mined from metamorphic rock deposits in the region.

Asbestos was first used in China during the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE). Chrysotile was intertwined with fabric in order to produce a fireproof materials. Fables of the time stated that the asbestos originated from a salamander-like animal who could walk on fire. Historical traveler Marco Polo, referenced the material in his journals and visited a mine to disprove the legends of its origin. With increasing trade in Asia moving westward, eventually the Persians began using the material which they had imported from India. Many royals in Persia were noted to have used asbestos-laden cloth for clothing, napkins, and other decorative objects.

Asbestos containing materials have had a long history of being used in ceremonial ways. In ancient Egypt, during the embalming process of Pharaohs, a cloth of asbestos was placed on the body in order to preserve it further. In Rome, many ceremonial temples of the gods had used asbestos in sacred fire rituals. The lamps of the roman group of vestal virgins contained an asbestos wick which allowed the lamp to burn without being extinguished.

Throughout history many other cultures would use asbestos for a wide variety of purposes due to its versatility and durability.  This is one of the reasons it was called the “miracle mineral” and its later implementation into modern building materials.