Asphalt is the inflammable substance we use to day to surface our roads and roof our homes. But it is much more than that, especially to the ancients. It was their glue, their means of waterproofing, and occasionally their method of making a living. It was a valuable commodity, found in only a few places, and used for many different purposes. Today it is an end-product produced in the refining of oil for gasoline and heating oil. It is so common and cheap that we use it by the ton in road surfacing.

Asphalt, or better, bitumen, was found in ancient times in pools or on the surface of water, having seeped up from the formations below. It was a natural resource, collected or mined for use and export. And every source was distinct in its properties although for the most part the chemical composition was the same. The difference between hard asphalt on one hand and oil which would pour on the other, is due to the amount of entrained volatile gases.


The use of asphalt is so ancient that its beginnings are lost. The oldest attested use is possibly on a reservoir at Mohenjo-Daro in India, dating to the third millennium BCE. The material was called earth-butter by these early Buddhist builders. And parts of the Bible also dating to this period, mentions pitch, or bitumen several times. The original Hebrew words are translated according to the perceived intent as to meaning. Pitch for boat-building and slime for waterproofing basketry.

When oil seeps out to the surface, the entrained gases slowly escape, making the asphalt left behind more viscous [thicker ]. Some oil reaches the surface already thick, while other sources are quite thin and fluid. Oil in pools tends to be thicker than oil found on the surface of water. Many, many variables determine the thickness of the asphalt, and many are under our direct control. Mixing asphalt with clay or aggregate makes it much thicker. And heating will drive off the volatiles quicker while making the asphalt more fluid, temporarily.

Pitch, slime, bitumen, all are variations of the same resource, but vary according to the use. And the use depends upon the asphalt's viscosity. Slime, being very fluid, would be ‘painted’ on a surface for waterproofing, while pitch, thicker, would be stuffed into cracks to stop leaks. The whole point here is that there is no real definition of the various terms used when talking about asphalt. The Bible mentions pitch and slime in the same sentence implying two different substances where what is really meant is two different uses.

There are several large lakes of natural asphalt which over time have hardened into a false-appearing surface. Animal s ventured out on these lakes, then have broken through the surface to become trapped and entrained. This is today a bone-pit from where the paleontologists extract and reconstruct animals long since extinct. The asphalt in these lakes have as much as 35% entrained clay and other impurities.

About Radiant Global

We supply our materials for use in the roads, construction and general civil engineering industry. Supplying bitumen and natural asphalt (“like-Gilsonite”) is also a significant part of our business

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