Overlaps between sheep, palm trees, and encaustic paintings

Eleanor Konik

Eleanor Konik

Professionally, I teach pre-teens about ancient civilizations. In my downtime, I enjoy combining storytelling with my love of sharing obscure history and science.


This week continues last week's efforts to develop creatures to populate the Bronze Age fantasy world I'm working on. This week I looked into the plausibility of large armadillo-like creatures that secrete a waxy substance high in capsaicin, and how that product might impact trade.

Fun Facts

  • Rutabagas, often called "waxy turnips," are not naturally covered in wax; they are packaged with food grade wax to keep them from drying out.
  • Ancient Roman peoples created candles by rolling papyrus in beeswax or tallow.
  • In Japan, candles were made of wax extracted from tree nuts. In India, candle wax was made by boiling the fruit of the cinnamon tree.
  • Carnauba wax, made from Brazilian palm trees, is too brittle on its own and must be mixed with beeswax to effectively waterproof leather.
  • Chinese wax is secreted by scale insects; it's similar to spermaceti, a waxy substance found in the head cavities of sperm whales.

Wax Tablets

Mesopotamian wax tablets were constructed out of hinged boards made of wood or ivory. The sunken part of each "page" was filled with a layer of beeswax and ochre paste that was easier to write on than pure wax.

Lost Wax Casting

Lost wax casting is basically the oldest metallurgy other than cold-hammering raw ore, which is pretty ineffective. There is a relatively small window of opportunity once the bronze is hot enough to cast before it is too late.

Encaustic Painting

Encaustic, a type of paint that uses wax as a binder instead of something like egg or oil, is harder to use and less realistic than tempera, which is bound by egg. It's also more expensive. But in places like Pompeii, it was common indoors because it doesn't stink as much.

Sheep's Wool Wax

Wool-bearing mammals secrete a wax known as lanolin, which I had never heard of until I had my son. Some people use it as mustache wax, though, ointment for dry skin, or even a lubricant for gears. There are some reports that it can be poisonous if ingested, though.

šŸ“— If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy the clothes edition, in which I discuss natural clothing materials we don't talk about much.

šŸ’š If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

šŸ•Æļø Do you know anything neat about wax? Please reach out ā€” I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.


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