Cinnabar from Red Devil Mine, north of Homer, Alaska
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Cinnabar, sometimes written cinnabarite, is a name applied to red mercury(II) sulfide (HgS), or native vermilion, the common ore of mercury. The name comes from the Greek - "kinnabari" - used by Theophrastus, and was probably applied to several distinct substances. Other sources say the word comes from the Persian zinjifrah, a word of uncertain origin. In Latin it was known as minium, meaning also "red lead" - a word probably borrowed from Iberian (cf. Basque armineá "cinnabar").
Cinnabar resembles quartz in its symmetry and certain of its optical characteristics. Like quartz, it exhibits birefringence. It has the highest refractive power of any mineral. Its mean index for sodium light is 3.08, whereas the index for diamond—a substance of remarkable refraction— is 2.42 and that for GaAs is 3.93.
See List of indices of refraction.
Cinnabar is found in all localities that yield mercury, notably Almadén (Spain); New Almaden (California); Hastings Mine and St. John's Mine, Vallejo, California; Idrija (Slovenia); New Idria (California); Landsberg, near Obermoschel in the Palatinate; Ripa, at the foot of the Apuan Alps (Tuscany); the mountain Avala (Serbia); Huancavelica (Peru);Murfreesboro, Arkansas Terlingua (Texas); and the province of Guizhou in China, where fine crystals have been obtained.
Cinnabar was mined by the Roman Empire both as a pigment (Vitruvius, DA VII; IV-V) (Pliny, HN; XXXIII, XXXVI-XLII) and for its mercury content (Pliny HN; XXXIII, XLI), and it has been the main source of mercury throughout the centuries. Some mines used by the Romans remain active today.
To produce liquid (quicksilver) mercury, crushed cinnabar ore is roasted in rotary furnaces. Pure mercury separates from sulfur in this process and easily evaporates. A condensing column is used to collect the liquid mercury, which is most often shipped in iron flasks.
Because of the high toxicity of mercury, both the mining of cinnabar and refining for mercury are hazardous and historic causes of mercury poisoning. In particular, the Romans used convict labor in their mines as a form of death sentence. The Spanish also used shorter term convict labor at the Almadén mines, with a 24% overall fatality rate in one 30 year period.
Abandoned mercury mine processing sites often contain very hazardous waste piles of roasted cinnabar calcines. Water runoff from such sites is a recognized source of ecological damage.
The most popularly known use of cinnabar is in Chinese carved lacquerware, a technique that apparently originated in the Song Dynasty. The danger of mercury poisoning may be reduced in ancient lacquerware by entraining the powdered pigment in lacquer, but could still pose an environmental hazard if the pieces were accidentally destroyed. In the modern jewelry industry, the toxic pigment is replaced by a resin-based polymer that approximates the appearance of pigmented lacquer.
In the Byzantine Empire, the Emperor and certain privileged bishops (such as the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Archbishop of Cyprus) were allowed the exclusive right of signing their names with ink colored vermilion by the addition of cinnabar.