That would seem to be an unexpected pairing, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Asbestos has been found as an strengthening additive to pottery as far back as 4500 years ago. It was known to be used 2000 years in the past for producing textiles. An article, such as a napkin, could be cleaned by simply throwing it in the fire. It could also be made into a cloth to separate a body from the fire materials in cremation. Its reputation as a “miracle mineral” has been known for many centuries. However, the 2014 discovery by art researchers of chrysotile – white asbestos – in the finish coating of the plaster beneath a portion of a wall painting in a Byzantine monastery in Cyprus, was unexpected. Researchers were investigating 12th century paintings in the Enkleistra of Neophytos when they found a smooth, mirror-like layer on a portion of the painting surface.
“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision — they must have understood the properties of the material.” Many advanced techniques were used in their study of these paintings. As they examined them, they found the asbestos-rich layer between a plaster layer and one of red paint. “So far, we’ve only found it in relation to those red pigments,” Kakoulli said.
Adding to the mystery, the asbestos deposits were 38 miles away at a high elevation. It was another 700 years before asbestos was found in the coating of other paintings. Now that these were found, the researchers will return to previously studied paintings to see if they missed asbestos in other artworks. “I have a feeling that it’s something that can be easily missed,” Kakoulli said. “This was quite an accidental discovery.”
Though asbestos was used since ancient times, it is said that Pliny the Younger noticed in the first century A.D. that slaves, working around the mineral, became ill. Yet, 2000 years later, we are still putting people at risk in many parts of the world, including the US, by not banning this deadly mineral.