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Asbestos use in ancient and medieval times
Asbestos is usually thought to be an industrial invention, used widely in the 20th century after industrial mining began in the late 1800s. However the history of asbestos goes back much further. People from all over the world have been using for thousands of years for its fire resistance, strength and insulating properties.
One of the earliest found examples of asbestos use comes from the ancient Greeks using asbestos fibres to make the wicks for eternal flames in temples. Ancient Egyptians were also aware of the durability of asbestos and wove it into cloth to strengthen clothing and to wrap the embalmed bodies of their Pharaohs.
Finland is the first country to use it as a building material around 2500 BC. Ruins of log cabins show asbestos being used as insulation. There have also been pots found with asbestos fibres - probably to strengthen and protect.
In a writing from 456 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus described how asbestos shrouds were wrapped around the bodies of the dead before cremation to contain the ashes. It was also commonplace for Roman restaurants to use asbestos table cloths that would be thrown in the fire to clean before the next customer.
Asbestos use started to get a bit more creative In 1095 during the crusades. Trebuchets were used during sieges that flung burning balls of pitch and tar wrapped in asbestos bags over city walls.
Marco Polo even witnessed asbestos being used by Genghis Khan and his Mongolian horde. They made their clothes from a “fabric that would not burn”, apparently woven from the hair of woolly lizards. This was just a fantasy however, and the real source of their clothing was revealed when he visited an asbestos mine in china.
So were these ancient peoples aware of the dangers of Asbestos to health?
Some were, as is shown by Greek geographer Strabo’s notes on slaves who produced asbestos cloth getting a “sickness of the lungs”. Roman historian Pliny the Elder noticed a similar effect, and wrote about the “disease of slaves” describing how miners would use a thin membrane crafted from the bladder of a goat or lamb to protect them from inhaling the dust as they worked. Unfortunately, this knowledge was lost, and when the industrial revolution began in the 1800s, asbestos mining exploded.
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