Ancient Oil Practices

There is a vast underground oil reserve in the Middle East region of the world. It has been in use for over 6,500 years. In ancient times, it seeped to the surface in sticky black pools and lumps. Oil springs, bitumen seeps and oil-bearing rock made petroleum readily available all over the region.

Stone Age dwellers used bitumen (pitch or tar) to seal cracked pots and water containers. They also used it to fasten arrowheads to their shafts. In what is now Iraq, people lived in the marshes. They used oil to make bricks and mortar for waterproof homes, helping them to survive floods. In Babylonian times, entire civilizations used millions of these bricks to build their cities. The “black gold” trade was the driving force of this industrialization throughout the Middle East.

People eventually realized that they could use bitumen to coat their reed boats, inside and out, sealing out water. This idea, called caulking, was eventually spread and used on wooden boats all over the world. The bitumen would stain the sailors’ clothes, adopting them the nickname, “tars”. This practice of caulking was used right up until modern days when metal and fiberglass hulled boats took the place of wooden ones.

In the beginning, people only used the sticky bitumen form of oil for gluing and waterproofing. They believed that the thinner forms of oil were too flammable and thin to be useful. By the 6th century BCE, the Persians realized that this thinner substance, which they called “naft”, could be very useful in battle. Persian archers dipped their arrows, sending flaming missiles toward their enemies. Later in the century, Byzantine warriors developed explosive fire bombs called “Greek Fire” made from bitumen, sulfur and quicklime.

Ancient Egyptians mummified their dead with a mixture of salt, beeswax, cedar resin and bitumen. Scholars believe that the word “mummy” comes from the Arabic word “mumya”, after the Mumya Mountain in Persia where bitumen was found. We didn’t believe that bitumen was used in mummification until recent chemical analysis proved that it was used to preserve bodies during the Ptolemaic period. Before that, we thought that the word “mummy” came from the black appearance that the remains took on after being exposed to the air.

Oil that was used in ancient times was usually found on the surface. The Chinese were the first to drill for oil. They actually made drills from bamboo dipped in iron. They drilled for salty brine water which they needed to preserve food and to make medicines. When they drilled deeply enough, they found oil. We don’t know if they actually used the oil that they found, but they did use the natural gas to boil the brine to extract the salt. Large companies such as Western Pipeline Corp use the same basic idea to drill for oil today.

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