There has been a recent discovery of asbestos being used by 12th-century monks to create frescos, which illuminate the walls of a Byzantine monastery currently being excavated in Paphos, Cyprus.

The word “asbestos” itself can be traced back to the original Greek meaning of ‘inextinguishable’ or ‘indestructible’, when asbestos was used by the Greeks, and later the Romans, to make flame retardant cloth, building materials and women’s clothing.

Recent investigations at the Byzantine monastery, Enkleistra of St. Neophytos, founded in 1159, and which lies 10 km outside Pafos in Cyprus, have revealed asbestos fibres embedded in the plaster coatings underlying fresco paintings of Christ and the disciples applied to the limestone cliffs of the monastery walls.

“Smooth layer with a mirror- like surface”

Using infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging, a number of minerals have been uncovered in the pigments within the finished coatings of plaster, including arsenic and magnesium silicate mineral – chrysotile (white asbestos). The researchers say that the chrysotile “provided a smooth layer with a mirror- like surface” for the painting to be applied.

The technique of fresco painting is to paint directly onto the surface of a moist, lime-rich plaster layer. The pigments are applied with water, and are “fixed” by a chemical reaction, which takes place with the setting of the lime. The researchers suggest that the monks very probably “understood the properties of asbestos” and it seems they intended to “give more shine and different properties to the plaster layer.”

Use of asbestos has a long history stretching back nearly five thousand years although asbestos awareness of the health risks of exposure and the link to asbestosis and fatal mesothelioma cancer only began to be recognised at the start of the modern era. Some of the earliest recorded uses date back to Ancient Egypt when pharaoh kings were embalmed with asbestos and the Persians imported asbestos from India for wrapping the deceased.

Asbestos fibres used to provide added strength

Around the same time, asbestos minerals were mixed with clay to strengthen the production of pottery, and 2,000 years ago asbestos fibres were already being woven into textiles to make fireproof napkins. Using asbestos fibres to provide added strength and highly efficient fireproofing / insulation began in the late 19th century.

Rather than using asbestos materials on wall surfaces for the application of religious frescos, twentieth century modern applications saw cements, wall plasters, joint (drywall) compounds, fire-retardant coatings and roofing, used as a widespread method to increase durability, insulation and weathering protection.

While the deadly health dangers of asbestos exposure began to be acknowledged as the 20th century progressed, ironically, the potential for causing health problems was being recorded as early as Roman times, observing that workers exposed to asbestos experienced, “lung ailments and were common” to anyone who worked with the mineral fibres.