Asbestos in the Ancient World

Asbestos occurs naturally on every continent in the world. Archeologists uncovered asbestos fibers in debris dating back to the Stone Age, some 750,000 years ago. It is believed that as early as 4000 B.C., asbestos’ long hair-like fibers were used for wicks in lamps and candles.

Between 2000-3000 B.C., embalmed bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth to protect the bodies from deterioration. In Finland, clay pots dating back to 2500 B.C. contained asbestos fibers, which are believed to strengthen the pots and make them resistant to fire. Around 456 B.C., Herodotus, the classical Greek historian, referred to the use of asbestos shrouds wrapped around the dead before their bodies were tossed onto the funeral pyre to prevent their ashes from being mixed with those of the fire itself.

Others believe that the word’s origin can be traced back to a Latin idiom, amiantus, meaning unsoiled, or unpolluted, because the ancient Romans were said to have woven asbestos fibers into a cloth-like material that was then sewn into tablecloths and napkins. These cloths were purportedly cleaned by throwing them into a blistering fire, from which they came out miraculously unharmed and essentially whiter than when they went in.

While Greeks and Romans exploited the unique properties of asbestos, they also documented its harmful effects on those who mined the silken material from ancient stone quarries. Greek geographer Strabo noted a “sickness of the lungs” in slaves who wove asbestos into cloth. Roman historian, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, wrote of the “disease of slaves,” and actually described the use of a thin membrane from the bladder of a goat or lamb used by the slave miners as an early respirator in an attempt to protect them from inhaling the harmful asbestos fibers as they labored.

    QUICK FACT! Some scholars claim the word asbestos comes from the ancient Greek term, sasbestos, meaning inextinguishable or unquenchable, a characterization of the material’s invincibility from the intense heat of the fire pits used by the Greeks for cooking and warmth.