Monks’ Secret: Asbestos Lurking Beneath Byzantine Wall Paintings

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. Here, UCLA archaeologist Ioanna Kakoulli examines a painting in the monastery under UV light. Credit: Ioanna Kakoulli, UCLA

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. Here, UCLA archaeologist Ioanna Kakoulli examines a painting in the monastery under UV light.
Credit: Ioanna Kakoulli, UCLA

Hundreds of years before asbestos became ubiquitous in the construction industry, Byzantine monks used the fibrous material in plaster coatings underlying their wall paintings during the late 1100s, new research shows.

By Joseph Castro

First published in Live Science, April 2014.

Asbestos is a type of natural, rock-forming mineral known for its ability to separate into long, flexible fibers. It has long been thought that asbestos fibers, which are corrosion- and combustion-resistant, were first integrated into such things as plaster, finish coatings and floors after the Industrial Revolution.

But while investigating the 12th-century paintings in the Byzantine monastery Enkleistra of St. Neophytos in Cyprus, UCLA researchers discovered the magnesium silicate mineral, chrysotile (white asbestos), in the finish coating of the plaster underneath a portion of a wall painting. The chrysotile provided a smooth layer with a mirrorlike surface for the painting.

“[The monks] probably wanted to give more shine and different properties to this layer,” said UCLA archaeological scientist Ioanna Kakoulli, lead author of the new study, published online last month in the Journal of Archaeological Science. “It definitely wasn’t a casual decision — they must have understood the properties of the material.”

Though all six asbestos minerals are now known to be carcinogenic, people have taken advantage of the fibrous materials’ unique properties for millennia. About 4,500 years ago, artisans mixed asbestos minerals with clay to produce stronger pottery. And 2,000 years ago, asbestos fibers were woven into textiles to make fireproof napkins (that were “washed” by tossing them into fire), or to make a special fabric that could separate human ashes from funeral pyre material during cremations, Kakoulli said. “It was considered to have magical powers,” she told Live Science.

In the late 19th century, people used asbestos in industrial products — including cements, wall plasters, joint (drywall) compounds, fire-retardant coatings and roofing, among other things — to increase their durability, insulation and weathering protection.

Given this history, Kakoulli and her colleagues weren’t expecting to find asbestos on the walls of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. They initially set out to see if there was any change in the materials used to create the monastery’s numerous wall paintings over time.

“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,” Kakoulli said.

The researchers analyzed some of the paintings on site using various techniques, including infrared, ultraviolet and X-ray fluorescence imaging. They also collected micro-samples of the paintings and further analyzed their molecular and elemental makeup with powerful scanning electron microscopes and other methods.

One of the paintings they inspected depicted the “Enthroned Christ” holding a book with a red frame. When they analyzed the red frame, they found an asbestos-rich layer that was applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers. “So far, we’ve only found it in relation to those red pigments,” Kakoulli said.

They found an asbestos-rich layer in the painting “Enthroned Christ,” which would’ve been applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers.They found an asbestos-rich layer in the painting “Enthroned Christ,” which would’ve been applied as a finish coating between a red paint layer and a plaster layer made up mostly of plant fibers.

Interestingly, the main deposits of asbestos in Cyprus come from a high-elevation area approximately 38 miles (60 km) from the monastery, which is near the coast. This location suggests the monks may have been involved in a kind of interregional trade for the asbestos.

The discovery raises many questions, such as why the asbestos was used in this context (and only for the red frame in the painting). It’s also curious why the fibrous material apparently wasn’t used again in coatings until the 19th century.

The scientists are now searching for answers. They plan to return to Cyprus to characterize more of the paintings at Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. Kakoulli also hopes to revisit other wall paintings she’s previously studied in Cyprus, to see if they also contained asbestos.

“I have a feeling that it’s something that can be easily missed,” Kakoulli said. “This was quite an accidental discovery.”

See more images here.

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Early Music America Reviews Good Friday in Jerusalem

Good Friday In Jerusalem: Medieval Byzantine Chant from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Donald Rosenberg reviews Capella Romana’s Good Friday In Jerusalem recording in Early Music America Magazine.

Here Cappella Romana travels back to the roots of Byzantine chant to recreate a Good Friday service through the music of the 8th and 9th centuries. The recording shot to the top of Amazon and Billboard charts when released, and it takes only a few seconds to understand why listeners have been mesmerized. From the moment the ensemble’s cavernous basses intone drones that anchor extended, contemplative chants, you won’t be able to tear yourself away from your speakers or earbuds. … The disc, the ensemble’s 20th, was recorded in Stanford University’s Memorial Church, a space of subtle resonance that allows the music to float on a halo of sound without ever becoming hazy. The singers of Cappella Romana…sustain the long phrases with remarkable finesse and breath control, including those intrepid basses, who appear to possess endless reserves of air. Along with tonal beauty, the ensemble brings utmost clarity to texts that inspired music of ecstatic and penetrating splendor. The soloists, the Greek-born Stelios Kontakiotis and Portland native John Michael Boyer, are eloquent champions of chant.” —Donald Rosenberg, Early Music America

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Exhibition of monoprint photographs based on Byzantine structures

Wonderful to be contacted by Joelle Imamoglu about an upcoming exhibition of monoprint photographs based on Byzantine structures to be held at Khas Gallery, Istanbul, between January 7th and March 4th. The photographer is Erhun Serbetci, the exhibition is curated by Prof. Hasan Bulent Kahraman and a 52-page booklet including an essay by the curator accompanies the exhibition.

The address is:

Khas Galeri
Kadir Has University
Kadir Has Caddesi Cibali, İstanbul 34083
Tel: +90 (212) 533 65 32

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When Brothers Dwell in Unity: Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality

This book was brought to my attention recently and I thought that it deserved to be shared with a wider audience. Same sex relationships are not an area that I feel at all confident commenting on, but what we all do know is the importance of them in Greek and Byzantine society, with many emperors having openly gay relationships.

“When Brothers Dwell in Unity”: Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality was witten by Stephen Morris and published by McFarland. Reviews have been positive

“I found the book refreshing and courageous. It puts the status of homosexuality within the Byzantine tradition carefully in context. A sound piece of historical writing. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. Morris engages the topic with objectivity, courage and grace. Fearless in dealing with sensitive subjects, its pastoral conclusions are insightful and helpful for discussion of the subject within all Christian churches, not just Orthodox Christianity.” —Wendy Mayer, Australian Catholic University

“Advocacy, autobiography, and scholarship combine in this a fascinating study of homoeroticism in the Byzantine and Orthodox worlds. Morris also sheds welcome further light on the adelphopoiesis or “brother-making” same-sex unions in premodern Europe.” — Mathew Kuefler, author of The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity

“Original and significant… [Morris argues] that the Orthodox Church can recognize the adelphopoiesis rite known from Byzantine times as a recognition of same-sex civil marriage and supports [his] argument convincingly throughout the book by drawing on the parallel of ecclesiastical recognition for second and third marriages, with historical antecedents that reach back to the 9th century.” — Claudia Rapp, Professor of Byzantine Studies (University of Vienna); author of Brother-Making in Late Antiquity: Monks, Laymen and Christian Ritual (Oxford, 2016)

You can buy the book on Amazon UK here: “When Brothers Dwell in Unity”: Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality

Further information on the author, Stephen Morris’ website and the McFarland site.

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Power couples and princesses in purple: coinage of Byzantine empresses

In the Byzantine empire power was technically vested in the emperor. Nevertheless, a number of empresses played an important part in government and even took control… Most commonly empresses came to power as regents for young sons, implying a fixed period of caretaker government until the young emperor came of age, usually at sixteen. But not all regents were ready to step aside… Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses 1999.

Like most traditional societies, the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire (491-1453 AD) was a man’s world. Elite women were generally expected to bear children, weave, sew, and remain modestly secluded at home. Some imperial women, however, rose to political power and some issued coins, either in their own names or with partners. A peculiarity of Byzantine history is that the same few female personal names occur repeatedly, while family names did not come into general use until after the ninth century, so when we say “Theodora” or “Eudokia” we must often add “wife of…” or “mother of…” to avoid confusion.

Many of these coins are highly collectible and in strong demand from growing numbers of collectors[1]. This article takes a closer look at these remarkable women and their coins.

By Mike Markowitz.

First published in Coinweek.

Read more here.

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Shipwrecks found in Istanbul’s Yenikapı shed light on ancient ship production

Thirty-seven shipwrecks discovered underwater during the Marmaray subway construction in Istanbul’s Yenikapı shed light on ship production technology in ancient eras.

First published in Hurriyet Daily News.

An inventory of the types of wood used in the production of 37 sunken ships discovered in Istanbul’s Yenikapı neighborhood during the construction of the city’s Marmaray subway project has been taken, shedding light on ancient ship production techniques.

Associate Prof. Ufuk Kocabaş from Istanbul University’s Department of Conservation and Restoration, said scientific study of the shipwrecks had continued after the end of the excavations in Yenikapı, in a written statement.

He said teams from the Istanbul Archaeology Museum were carrying out the documentation and protection of thousands of artifacts which were obtained during excavations between 2005 and 2013.

He said the conservation work for 27 of 37 shipwrecks found in the Byzantine-era Theodosius Harbor was continuing at the Yenikapı Shipwrecks Research Lab, adding the most important findings at Yenikapı were the shipwrecks from various periods.

Kocabaş said the shipwrecks were unique sources to learn about the function of the harbor and ship production technology in the ancient era.

“The recent data shows that among these Byzantine-era ships, the ones from the 5th and 7th centuries were made of needle-leaved trees such as cypress and pine trees, while the ones from the 9th and 11th centuries were totally made of large-leafed trees including oak and chestnut trees, and those between the 7th and 9th centuries were made of both type of trees. There is an evident change in the material of ships between the 5th and 11th centuries. The observations of 27 shipwrecks, which date back for a long time period, shed light on ship construction techniques in the Byzantine era and also the changes in the use of wood through time,” said Kocabaş.

He said the third volume of a book series of the Yenikapı shipwrecks’ anatomy was about to be finished, adding, “The Yenikapı shipwreck numbered 112 was studied at the university as a doctorate thesis and it was the first shipwreck whose examinations have been fully completed. The next [step] is to work on its details. It will be the first archaeological sample whose construction technology will be examined by Turkish academics.

It takes years to work on the anatomy of a ship and it is hard work. We try to find a sponsor for the books that we write on this issue.”

Kocabaş said they had been working on a detailed map showing Byzantine-era trade and products as well as drawings of Byzantine-era artifacts and the locations of harbors. “The goal is to release 20 academic books on these findings which will bring us the world’s largest shipwreck museum in Istanbul,” he added.

Stating that the variety of shipwrecks provided a unique opportunity to understand the development of ship production technologies in the Mediterranean, Kocabaş said, “I have compared shipwrecks from the 5th and 10th centuries, which are of various sizes and were constructed with different techniques. The galleys, which are very different from trade ships with their long and naïve body structures and wood types, are the first archaeological samples dated back to the Byzantine era. Galley remains are rarely seen in underwater archaeology works. Since the galleys used in the Byzantine fleet have been so far examined in iconographic sources, these first samples provide a unique opportunity for the examination of ship construction technology.”

Scientific work on the shipwrecks has been continuing, said Kocabaş, adding the restoration of nearly 1,500-year-old wooden remnants might take many years.

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Walking home for Christmas like tramps

Tom in Bath at journey's end 2014

Tom in Bath at journey’s end 2014

Last year many of you made generous contributions to help me raise £2,500 for the homeless charity Shelter. This year I am almost doubling the distance I walk, and the nights out sleeping rough in the cold December weather, to achieve a doubling of the target to £5,000. And by walking with my son Patrick, there is a doubling of the walkers!

By Tom Sawford.

In mid-December Patrick and I will walk along the byways of England from the parish church of Ottery St Mary in Devon to Winchester Cathedral to raise awareness of the curses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and related homelessness. The route of around 120 miles will take us about 5 days and we will walk as tramps, living off the goodwill of strangers, and sleeping rough in order to meet the goal of raising £5,000 for two charities that work tirelessly to assist those who struggle with these issues.

Combat Stress is the UK’s leading Veterans’ mental health charity. Mental ill-health such as PTSD affects ex-Service men and women of all ages. Right now, the charity supports over 5,900 Veterans aged from 18 to 97, and spends over £15 million per annum delivering its unique range of specialist treatment and welfare support which is always free of charge.

Winchester Churches Nightshelter provides a vital lifeline to the homeless, and remains the only night shelter offering direct access emergency accommodation in Hampshire. They support up to 200 homeless people annually. Residents benefit from a programme of practical and emotional support to help them to rebuild their lives and escape homelessness for good. Many of the people they deal with are ex-military. There is a direct link between mental health problems such as PTSD and homelessness. Money raised will go direct to the homeless which we feel may be a better outcome than through a larger charity.

I hope that you will feel inspired to support the fundraising and make some (doubly !!!) generous contributions at the Just Giving page where you can choose to split your donations between the two charities if you wish.

Some of you have asked about joining the walk and you would be very welcome to do so for some or all of the route. The dates are likely to be 15-19 December. I will publish the full route very soon.

There is a public Facebook page if you want to follow the progress.

Thank you all very much. Please donate here.

#combatstress #homelessness #homeless #veterans


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