Ancient Egyptians
Hoarded Crude Oil

By Jennifer Viegas
Discovery News
New research suggests that oil and its by-products were valued and traded in the Mideast at least 3,000 years ago, the same region that dominates world production and export of crude oil today.
Evidence for the discovery came from surprising sources - mummies.
According to a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Geoarchaeology, scientists found tar on several ancient Egyptian mummies. Because every batch of tar contains unique biochemicals, the researchers were able to trace the sticky substances back to their origins.
Since the study found that crude oil sources were scattered over hundreds of miles throughout the Middle East, the researchers now believe that ancient Egyptians not only valued oil, but that they traded it, using routes that have changed little over the millennia.
The Egyptians particularly valued tar, which can result naturally when crude oil is exposed to air. Evaporation, oxidation by light, and the breakdown of microbes transforms oil into tar.
Egyptians went to great lengths to obtain tar primarily because it was one of the substances used in the mummification process. In fact, the word mummy was derived from the Arabic word mumiya, meaning bitumen, which is a component of tar.
Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, lead author of the paper and a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M's College of Geosciences, told Discovery News that tar retains evidence of the organic matter that originally produced it.
"The precursor biochemicals have very complex chemical structures," Kennicutt said. "Some of this complexity is preserved in the oil. These 'molecular fossils' can then be used to provide unique fingerprints for oils of various origins."
Focusing primarily on various types of triterpane and sterane compounds, Kennicutt and his team determined that Egyptians looked far and wide for their oil supplies. Some tar came from a site called Gebel Zeit - which in Arabic means "Oil Mountain" - located at the Gulf of Suez in Egypt. Other tar originated hundreds of miles away in the Dead Sea, near Israel.
The researchers believe ancient trade routes were widespread and common, mirroring travel routes that still are in use. It is likely that people outside of Egypt also used tar, given its value outside of preserving bodies. Tar was like the duct tape of the ancient world, and more.
"There is evidence at one of the (Egyptian) sites that tar was used as a fuel in the glass-making process," Kennicutt said. "From other regions we also know tar was used to caulk boats and in some cases was believed to have medicinal properties."
Michael Lewan of the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver has worked on similar studies involving tar fingerprinting. He believes that his and Kennicutt's work represents "a novel and fascinating application for oil research."
In other mummy news, last week the Egypt Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni, announced that a team of Spanish archaeologists working in Egypt found approximately eleven tombs and 12 arched chambers within a cemetery that dates back to 2061-2190 B.C.
The tombs, made of unburnt bricks, contained jewelry consisting of chains, as well as necklaces that were made of precious stones formed into seashell shapes. Fake gates and religious paintings also were found at the ancient cemetery.
Copyright © 2005 Discovery Communications Inc.



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