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Bitumen - The Archaeology and History of Black Goo

A Smelly but Useful Material of Interest


Bitumen Deposits at La Brea Tar Pits

Bitumen Deposits at La Brea Tar Pits

Stephen Mihalcik

Bitumen is a black, oily, viscous material that is a naturally-occurring organic byproduct of decomposed organic materials. Also known as asphalt or tar, bitumen was mixed with other materials throughout prehistory and throughout the world for use as a sealant, adhesive, building mortar, incense, and decorative application on pots, buildings, or human skin. The material was also useful in waterproofing canoes and other water transport, and in the mummification process toward the end of the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt. It is also flammable. And, thanks to recent scholarship, this gooey stuff is also identifiable to source.

The earliest known use of bitumen was by Neanderthals, some 40,000 years ago. Bitumen was found adhering to stone tools used by Neanderthals at sites such as Hummal and Umm El Tlel in Syria; it was probably used to fasten a wooden or ivory haft to the sharp edged tools. During the late Uruk and Chalcolithic periods at Hacinebi, in Syria, bitumen was used for construction of buildings and water proofing of reed boats, with among other uses.

Some of the bitumen in Syria was found to have originated from the Hit seepage on the Euphrates River in southern Mesopotamia. The earliest reed boat discovered yet was coated with bitumen, at the site of H3 at As-Sabiyah, about 5000 BC. And, one of the myths of the Mesopotamian Sargon the Great of Akkad was that as an infant he floated in a bitumen-coated reed basket down the Euphrates River.

The use of bitumen in Egyptian mummies was important beginning at the end of the New Kingdom (after 1100 BC)--in fact the word from which mummy is derived 'mūmiyyah' means bitumen in Arabic. Recent studies in Mesoamerica (pre-Classic and post-classic periods were included) have found bitumen was used to stain human remains, perhaps as a ritual pigment as red ochre is. But more likely, say researchers Argáez and associates, the staining may have resulted from using heated bitumen applied to stone tools which were used to dismember those bodies.

The La Brea Tar Pits in California is one place where a smelly oily bitumen lake can be, uh, experienced first hand.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Raw Materials, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

A wonderful source on bitumen is the paper by Krishnan and Rajagopal cited below, which has an extensive summary of bitumen used throughout history, and a long discussion about the mechanical properties and locations of the material throughout the world, as well as a 500+ entry bibliography on the subject.

Argáez C, Batta E, Mansilla J, Pijoan C, and Bosch P. 2011. The origin of black pigmentation in a sample of Mexican prehispanic human bones. Journal of Archaeological Science 38(11):2979-2988.

Connan J. 1999. Use and trade of bitumen in antiquity and prehistory: molecular archaeology reveals secrets of past civilizations. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 354:33-50.

Connan J, Carter R, Crawford H, Tobey M, Charrié-Duhaut A, Jarvie D, Albrecht P, and Norman K. 2005. A comparative geochemical study of bituminous boat remains from H3, As-Sabiyah (Kuwait), and RJ-2, Ra's al-Jinz (Oman). Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 16(1):21-66.

Connan J, and Van de Velde T. 2010. An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 21(1):1-19.

Krishnan JM, and Rajagopal KR. 2003. Review of the uses and modeling of bitumen from ancient to modern times. American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Applied Mechanics Reviews 56(2):149-214.

Rawcliffe C, Aston M, Lowings A, Sharp MC, and Watkins KG. 2005. Laser Engraving Gulf Pearl Shell--Aiding the Reconstruction of the Lyre of Ur. Lacona VI.

Schwartz M, and Hollander D. 2008. Bulk stable carbon and deuterium isotope analyses of bitumen artifacts from Hacinebi Tepe, Turkey: reconstructing broad economic patterns of the Uruk expansion. Journal of Archaeological Science 35(12):3144-3158.

Wendt CJ, and Cyphers A. 2008. How the Olmec used bitumen in ancient Mesoamerica. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 27(2):175-191.

Wendt CJ, and Lu S-T. 2006. Sourcing archaeological bitumen in the Olmec region. Journal of Archaeological Science 33(1):89-97.

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