17. In the mines at Scapte Hyle a stone was once found which was li\e rotten wood in appearance. Whenever oil was poured on it, it burnt, but when the oil had been used up, the stone stopped burning, as if it were itself unaffected. Scapte Hyle was a mining district in Thrace opposite the island of Thasos in the Northern Aegean. According to Davies78 the modern Eski Kavala is perhaps the district. In Wimmer's text the name appears in the genitive case and is written as one word (Ζκαπτησνλη?), but the true nominative form is Σκαπτή "Ύλη ("a forest that may be dug"). In the manuscripts the name appears as two words, εγκαπτής νλης, and the first includes the preposition iv. Turnebus changed this to iv σκαπτησυλης. The Latin name is Scaptesula, but Scaptensula is the spelling found in Lucretius.79
Something seems to be lacking in this passage. Does Theophrastus mean that the stone became ignited as soon as oil was poured upon it, or does he mean that when oil was poured upon the stone and ignited, it then burnt away, leaving the stone in its original state? The second meaning certainly seems more probable, though the first one may well have been what Theophrastus intended; for when ancient authors say that Thracian stone and other combustible mineral substances are ignited by water and extinguished by oil, they seem to regard this as a phenomenon worthy of special mention, because it is opposed to the normal order of things. It is untrue, however, that any mineral can be ignited by the mere act of pouring oil upon it. If such a notion was held by Theophrastus and other ancient writers, it probably originated from distorted hearsay evidence or from false reasoning divorced from experience.
Moore80 thought that Theophrastus was really referring to asbestos. The color of the stone makes this unlikely, though its structure makes it less improbable, since some forms of decayed wood do have a fibrous structure like asbestos. We know from statements of various early authors that asbestos was known in an-
78 O. Davies, Roman Mines in Europe (Oxford, 1935), p. 235.
79 K. Lachmann, In T. Lucretii Cari De Rerum Natura Ubros Commentarius (Berlin, 1882), p. 395 (on Lucretius 6, 810).
80 Moore, Ancient Mineralogy, p. 153.