Thursday, April 3, 2014

Abbey asbestos

It was news to me that asbestos, which we now know to be carcinogenic, is a natural mineral. I also had no idea that before its industrial application beginning in the late 19th c. as a fire retardant and insulating material, it had been in use for millennia. Artisans mixed asbestos with clay to produce stronger pottery 4,500 years ago. Weavers added the fibers to textiles 2,000 years ago to give them what were considered magical powers: asbestos napkins could be tossed into the fire to be cleansed and asbestos shrouds could keep human ashes separate from the materials used for cremations. Even so, it was a surprise to UCLA archaeologist Ionna Kakoulli (IMAGE ABOVE) to find a form of the mineral underlying the 12th c. wall paintings she was studying. She and her fellow researchers found it when they applied modern techniques to the paintings, including infrared, ultraviolet, and X-ray fluorescence imaging, and analyzed micro-samples with scanning electron microscopes. The murals are located in the Byzantine monastery Enkleistra of St. Neophytos in Cyprus and the monks may have applied the layer of white asbestos to the plaster to provide a smooth, mirrorlike surface for painting. But the scientists are still puzzled as to why the asbestos-rich layer was only found beneath certain areas of the paintings, for instance behind the frame around the depiction of the "Enthroned Christ" on the ceiling. Kakoulli remarks, "So far, we've only found it in relation to those red pigments. I have a feeling that it's something that can be easily missed. This was quite an accidental discovery."

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