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Home arrow Sites of interest arrow  Al-Khidr arrow Use of bitumen
Use of bitumen at Al-Khidr

Tereza Belanová

Bitumen (natural asphalt) is a black pasty petroleum based material available from natural oil seepages common in the Gulf region. By virtue of its water-resistance and viscosity, it was used in the past for many purposes. The adhesiveness and plasticity of fresh bitumen helps to ensure the preservation of perishable materials. At Al-Khidr, bitumen occurs as a blackish solid substance indicating that it has in actual fact been mixed with various organic and mineral matters (chopped straw, palm and reed leaves, date stones, sand, clay, and pottery debris).

Scattered throughout the whole excavated area, it was besides mortar frequently used as a bonding material in buildings. Thin bitumen layers on the inner and/or outer surfaces of pots testifies to its extensive use as a waterproof agent. Storing and perhaps heating up the bitumen at Al-Khidr is represented by potsherds with a thick and rugged bituminous crust. Other types of bituminous mixture richly tempered with sand contain a large number of date stone imprints, substantially enriching our collection of plant macro-remains.

Regarding compact lumps of bituminous substance, various artefacts such as handles, sealings and jar stoppers also occur. Impressions of various plants and perishable artefacts represent a major part of the Al-Khidr bitumen assemblage. Numerous palm leaves and reeds or palm wood tied together with cordage point to the presence of larger constructions. Abundant and well identified artefacts include fragments of bitumen coated mats, small baskets and containers. Well preserved detailed impressions enable identification of ancient basketry and cordage techniques. Most of the baskets were plaited in two-over-two-under twill technique of palm leaves and covered with bitumen on interior and exterior surfaces. An exceptional find recorded in situ is a nearly complete coiled basket. Impressions of cordage are less frequent and occur mostly on the reverse of seals (circular stamp seal impressions) once marking the goods closed in containers or bundles.

This glimpse into the world of everyday life in Dilmun as mediated by bitumen finds would not be complete without mentioning seafaring. Like in recent times, reed-bundle boats were caulked by bitumen to prevent leakage and mechanical damage of the hull. Albeit these finds are not uncommon in the Gulf, the evidence of boats from Al-Khidr is still flimsy. We do have one or two pieces of bitumen with barnacle encrustations similar to the Neolithic boat fragments described from site H3, at As-Sabiyah, Kuwait. The natural anchorage at Al-Khidr and the evidence of Dilmun maritime trade with Mesopotamia indicates that boats played an important role in Dilmun society.


My thanks are due to Lucia Benediková, Peter Barta, Mária Hajnalová and Svorad Štolc (KSAM), Waleed Al-Bazzaz (Petroleum Research Studies Center of the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research), Mubarak Al-Hajeri (Kuwaiti Oil Company), Mark Beech (Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, Abu Dhabi, UAE), Jeff Illingworth (R. L. Andrews Center for Perishables Analysis at Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA).



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