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From the Stone Age to the Egyptians and Romans - the history of asbestos

With the recent coronation of Charles III now behind us and commentators expressing how for future generations, it will be an event that becomes a part of our history, we decided to do our own journey back in time and detail some fascinating facts about asbestos - you will be shocked at how far back we can go!

This blog details what archeologists have discovered - from dating its existence right back to the Stone Age (some 750,000 years ago) to recordings of its uses by the Romans and Egyptians. Further blogs (including History of asbestos - from the Middle Ages to the 18th Century and From the 18th century to now - the story of asbestos will take us up to the present age so look out for each one as they’re published. 

It all begins with the Neolithic period

So to put into context the period of time we’re talking about here and do it briefly (before we lose you completely); what is referred to as the Prehistoric Period dates from 2.5 million years ago to 1200 B.C. It’s split into the archaeological periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. The Stone Age is then categorised as Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age), Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), and Neolithic (New Stone Age). Our interest lies in the Neolithic period: 8000 - 3000 BC when towards the end of that period, our early ancestors - having discovered the application of tools - moved away from being hunter-gatherers to farming and food production.

Evidence of asbestos use in Finland

You’re probably already aware that asbestos is a natural fibre found throughout the world. With its hair-like composition, there is evidence that we can go back as far as 4000 BC to document the use of asbestos as candle wicks - the fibres in the wicks helped the flame to catch. Archeologists have discovered that people living in East Finland, some 4,500 years ago, used it to strengthen ceramic pots and utensils due to its fire resistant qualities. 

Asbestos and the ancient Egyptians

Jump forward a thousand years or so and between 2000 and 3000 BC asbestos was used by the ancient Egyptians when they embalmed their pharaohs. Enfolded in a shroud that had asbestos woven into it, the method helped preserve the body. 

The use of asbestos by the Greeks and Romans

Two hundred years later and the Greeks and Romans got involved. Greek records dating back to 400 BC refer to the benefits of asbestos and its fire resistant properties. The Greek historian and geographer, Herodotus detailed (around 456 BC) how asbestos shrouds intentionally kept separate the cremated ashes of bodies from the actual funeral pyre’s ashes. 

The Romans put asbestos to use in tablecloths and napkins which were subsequently cleaned by fire. Some believe that this is where the word asbestos is derived - from the Latin, amiantus which means unsoiled, or unpolluted.

The awareness of a risk to health

What is interesting at this point, is the acknowledgement by both the Romans and the Greeks, that asbestos could be harmful to those mining it. The Greek geographer, Strabo refers to slaves suffering from a ‘sickness of the lungs’ whilst Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, naturalist and philosopher writes of the ‘disease of slaves’. It’s also fascinating that he recounts a method to prevent inhalation of the fibres and this crude respirator consisted of a thin membrane taken from either a goat or lamb’s bladder. 

This does beg the question that if both the Romans and the Greeks were aware of the dangers - why did they continue to use it? Presumably because a slave's suffering was of no concern or perhaps the pros outweighed the cons. 

So asbestos has been used pre 4000 BC

So to answer the question of when did asbestos first start being used, there is evidence that it was pre 4000BC.

Since this blog has detailed the history of asbestos from the Stone Age to ancient civilisations, next in the series will cover the Middle Ages right up to the mid 1800s when mining and production became prolific.