Late 19th century architects were by no means the first to discover the building and fire-proofing wonders of asbestos (although they were the first to discover its cancer-causing propensities). As it turns out, artistic monks working in the 1100s also favored the material for making wall paintings, LiveScience reports.
University of California Los Angeles researchers discovered the asbestos in Cyprus, while studying wall paintings in a monastery called Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. White asbestos, they found, was used as a finish coating on the plaster, which was then painted over with religious murals and imagery. The asbestos, the researchers said, would have provided an attractive shine to the surface. So far, they've only discovered it in connection to red pigments—although they plan to revisit monasteries all over Cyprus to see if they might have missed the material before.
The monks were not even the first to use asbestos. Before the Byzantine era, people thought asbestos had magical properties due to its fireproofness. As LiveScience writes, "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." And still earlier—about 4,500 years ago—the carcinogenic material was used to make stronger clay pots, LiveScience reports.