The Global History of Asbestos

Last Updated on June 27, 2023 by dagan2021

The Global History of Asbestos Up To The 1800s

Did you know the name asbestos may have come from the Greek word asbestos, which means unquenchable or inextinguishable? Evidenced by the use of asbestos in Greek fire pits. Others think the word is from the Latin ‘amiantus’, meaning unsoiled or unpolluted. 

Asbestos comes from certain rocks found throughout the world. It is a naturally forming mineral that occurs when these rocks fracture or fault due to high temperatures, increased pressure and water.

Asbestos In Ancient Times

Asbestos has been in use for over 5,000 years. However, archaeologists have found evidence of the mineral in stone-age excavations. Evidence also indicates asbestos usage as candle and lamp wicks in 4000 BC.

The Romans used the mineral to weave into tablecloths and napkins. These were then cleaned by throwing them into a fire, from which they came cleaner and whiter due to the properties of the mineral. Greeks also wove asbestos into shrouds, which contained the ashes separately from the funeral pyre’s flames. 

Asbestos was also used by the Egyptians, who embalmed their pharaohs in asbestos-soaked cloths inbetween 2,000 and 3,000 BC.

Evidence has been found of asbestos used in Finnish clay cooking pots—dating from 3,500 BC—to fireproof them.

Roman geographer Pliny the Elder and Greek philosopher Strabo reported on what they called the “disease of slaves” and “sickness of the lungs” of those who mined the material from stone quarries. Pliny the Elder also wrote of how a thin membrane from a goat’s or lamb’s bladder was used as a preventative measure to protect the mining slaves.

Uses Of Asbestos From the Middle Ages

Circa 755, the French King Charlemagne had tablecloths made with asbestos to stop them from burning in the frequent accidental firs during banquets and feasts. He also copied the Greek idea of burying his generals in asbestos shrouds. Cremation cloths, mats and temple lamp wicks were made using asbestos. In the first millennium, most of the chrysotile asbestos came from Cyprus, and from Northern Italy came tremolite asbestos.


The European Crusader Knights used asbestos to wrap the bags holding flaming pitch and tar launched from the catapult known as a trebuchet. Asbestos use continued throughout the middle ages, primarily used as a garment under armour.


The famous explorer Marco Polo wrote about the clothing worn by Mongolians made from fabric that would not burn. Marco Polo also documents how he visited an asbestos mine in China to disprove rumours that asbestos came from a woolly lizard.

1682 – 1725

During the reign of Peter the Great, Chrysotile asbestos was mined in Russia, and today, Russia is the world’s top asbestos producer, followed by China, Brazil, India, Thailand, and Kazakhstan.

In 1725, a young Benjamin Frankland came to the UK from Russia with a purse made from asbestos. The purse remains in the care of the London Natural History Museum


Evidence shows that asbestos was used in paper in Italy from the 1700s. In the 1800s, banknotes in Italy also contained asbestos.

The Parisian Firefighters wore garments made from and their helmets lined with asbestos cloth. Prester John, the Emperor of India, and Pope Alexander III are all said to have robes made from asbestos fibres.

Published Jun 27, 2023

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