The Surprising Ancient Origins of Asbestos | History Hit

The Surprising Ancient Origins of Asbestos

Asbestos warning sign
Image Credit: US Library of Congress (left); Barry Barnes, (right)

Occurring naturally on every continent in the world, asbestos has been found in archaeological items dating back to the Stone Age. The hair-like silicate fibre, which is composed of long and thin fibrous crystals, was first used for wicks in lamps and candles, and has since been used for products such as insulation, concrete, bricks, cement and car parts across the world and in a huge number of buildings.

Though its popularity exploded during the Industrial Revolution, asbestos has been used by civilisations such as the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for everything from clothing to death shrouds. Indeed, the word ‘asbestos’ is thought to come from the Greek sasbestos (ἄσβεστος), meaning ‘unquenchable’ or ‘inextinguishable’, since it was recognised as highly heat and fire-resistant when used for candle wicks and fire cooking pits.

Though widely banned today, asbestos is still mined and used in certain places around the world. Here’s a rundown of the history of asbestos.

Ancient Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos

The use of asbestos throughout history is well-documented. Between 2,000 – 3,000BC, embalmed bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth as a means of protecting them from deteriorating. In Finland, clay pots have been discovered which date to 2,500 BC and contain asbestos fibres, probably to strengthen the pots and make them fire-resistant.

The classical Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the dead being wrapped in asbestos before being put on a funeral pyre as a means of preventing their ashes from mixing with the ashes from the fire.

It has also been suggested that the word ‘asbestos’ can be traced to the Latin idiom ‘aminatus‘, meaning unsoiled or unpolluted, since ancient Romans were said to have woven asbestos fibres into a cloth-like material that they then sewed into tablecloths and napkins. The cloths were said to be cleaned by being thrown into a fire, after which they came out undamaged and clean.

Ramesses the Great, ego in the ancient world and Tutankhamun's sacred underwear. These are all covered in today's episode with Dr Campbell Price about the treasures that will be housed in the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza.
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Its harmful effects were known early on

Certain Ancient Greeks and Romans were aware of asbestos’ unique properties as well as its harmful effects. For instance, Greek geographer Strabo documented the ‘sickness of the lungs’ in enslaved people who wove asbestos into cloth, while naturalist, philosopher and historian Pliny the Elder wrote about the ‘disease of slaves’. He also described the use of a thin membrane from the bladder of goat or lamb that was used by the miners as an early respirator to try and protect them from the harmful fibres.

Charlemagne and Marco Polo both used asbestos

In 755, King Charlemagne of France had a tablecloth made of asbestos as a protection against the burning from accidental fires that happened frequently during feasts and celebrations. He also wrapped his dead generals’ bodies in asbestos shrouds. By the end of the first millennium, mats, lamp wicks and cremation cloths were all made from chrysolite asbestos from Cyprus and tremolite asbestos from northern Italy.

Charlemagne at dinner, detail of a 15th century miniature

Image Credit: Talbot Master, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1095, the French, Italian and German knights who fought in the First Crusade used a trebuchet to throw flaming bags of pitch and tar wrapped in asbestos bags over city walls. In 1280, Marco Polo wrote about clothing made by the Mongolians from a fabric that wouldn’t burn, and later visited an asbestos mine in China to dispel the myth that it came from the hair of a woolly lizard.

It was later used by Peter the Great during his period as Russia’s tsar from 1682 to 1725. In the early 1700s, Italy began using asbestos in paper, and by the 1800s, the Italian government used asbestos fibres in bank notes.

Demand boomed during the Industrial Revolution

The manufacture of asbestos didn’t flourish until the late 1800s, when the start of the Industrial Revolution motivated strong and steady demand. The practical and commercial use of asbestos broadened as its resistance to chemicals, heat, water and electricity made it an excellent insulator for the turbines, steam engines, boilers, electrical generators and ovens that increasingly powered Britain.

By the early 1870s, there were large asbestos industries founded in Scotland, England and Germany, and by the end of the century, its manufacture became mechanised by using steam-drive machinery and new mining methods.

By the early 1900s, asbestos production had grown to more than 30,000 tons annually around the world. Children and women were added to the industry workforce, preparing, carding and spinning raw asbestos fibre while men mined for it. At this time, the ill-effects of asbestos exposure became more widespread and pronounced.

Asbestos demand peaked in the 70s

After the First and Second World Wars, global demand for asbestos increased as countries struggled to revitalise themselves. The US were key consumers due to a huge expansion of the economy along with sustained construction of military hardware during the Cold War. In 1973, US consumption peaked at 804,000 tons, and peak world demand for the product was realised in about 1977.

In total, around 25 companies produced about 4.8 million metric tons per year, and 85 countries produced thousands of asbestos products.

Nurses arrange asbestos blankets over an electrically heated frame to create a hood over patients to help warm them quickly, 1941

Image Credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Its harm was finally more widely recognised towards the end of the 20th century

In the 1930s, formal medical studies documented the link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, and by the late 1970s, public demand began to decline as a link between asbestos and lung-related diseases was more widely recognised. Labour and trade unions demanded safer and healthier working conditions, and liability claims against major manufacturers caused many to create market alternatives.

By 2003, new environmental regulations and consumer demand helped push for at least partial bans on the use of asbestos in 17 countries, and in 2005, it was banned entirely throughout the European Union. Though its usage has significantly declined, asbestos is still not banned in the US.

Today, at least 100,000 people are thought to die every year from diseases related to asbestos exposure.

It is still made today

Though asbestos is known to be medically harmful, it is still mined in certain areas around the world, particularly by emerging economies in developing countries. Russia is the top producer, making 790,000 tonnes of asbestos in 2020.

Lucy Davidson