Asbestos Mesothelioma LinkAsbestos is commonly found in older buildings for its insulating and fire-retardant properties. However, extensive studies into the downside of the material have proven that inhalation of its fibres can lead to the development of the highly aggressive and usually fatal cancer, mesothelioma.
Banned in UK Since 1999Most widely used by the building and construction industry from the end of the 19th century, asbestos was finally banned in the UK in 1999.
Now a new study has revealed that asbestos was used by Byzantine monks in the coatings beneath monastery wall paintings prior to the 13th century.
Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) found traces of white asbestos (chrysotile) while surveying 12th century remains at a Cyprus monastery, Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. It is believed the mineral was used to produce a 'mirror' substrate for the wall paintings.
Part of Wall-Painting ProcessAn archaeologist with UCLA, Ioanna Kakoulli, wrote that the monks were most likely seeking "more shine and different properties" for that particular layer of the painting.
"It definitely wasn't a casual decision," Dr Kakoulli said. "They must have understood the properties of the material."
Magical powersSome evidence of long-term asbestos use had been already identified prior to the UCLA findings. "It was considered to have magical powers," Dr Kakoulli noted. Almost 5,000 years ago, asbestos-related material was combined with clay to strengthen bowls and pots, and around 3 millennia later fibrous asbestos was added to weaves to fire-proof textiles and fabrics.
The UCLA team was more concerned with archaeology than with adding to the sum of asbestos research. The initial plan was to find out if the passage of centuries had caused the materials in the monks' wall paintings to change.
"We wanted to see how the technological part of making these paintings follows or reveals anything of what we see in their iconography and style," Dr Kakoulli explained.