Findings made by British Museum archaeologists and scientists reveal that bitumen has been identified for the first time

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Findings made by British Museum archaeologists and scientists reveal that bitumen has been identified for the first time
Crumbly black solid with textile impressions.

LONDON.- Findings made by British Museum archaeologists and scientists published today in Scientific Reports reveal that bitumen has been identified for the first time in ancient Nubia. Samples analysed from Amara West, now in modern day Sudan, provide evidence of the use of bitumen from the Dead Sea in Nubia during the 19th and 20th Dynasties (c.1250–1080 BC). This discovery expands our understanding of the practice of funerary rituals using black liquids, as this new research provides an example of the use of this ritual far from the centre of power in Egypt, and in a tomb with both Egyptian and Nubian elements.

A combination of archaeological and scientific research uncovered two different uses for bitumen at Amara West. The bitumen was found in two different forms, ground and mixed with gum to make a black paint, and in a ritual liquid made from a mixture of organic products. Bitumen is a dense, highly viscous, form of petroleum found in natural deposits. The bitumen found in use at Amara West can be sourced to the Dead Sea, some 2500km away.

Evidence for the trade in bitumen into the Nile Valley during the New Kingdom has so far been very limited, so this discovery is a major contribution showing evidence for a trade in solid bitumen from the Dead Sea into Nubia during the 19th and 20th dynasties (c. 1290 to 1070 BC), an era when pharaonic Egypt ruled an empire from sub-Saharan Africa to southern Syria. The scientific analysis conducted at the British Museum provides the first molecular identification of bitumen used as a ground pigment from the time of the pharaohs.

Amara West lies between the Second and Third Nile Cataracts, in the heart of Nubia, a region that stretched from Aswan in southern Egypt southwards to the Fourth Nile Cataract. This region was occupied by pharaonic Egypt from around 1548 to 1086 BC. Excavations at the site were conducted by the British Museum between 2008 and 2019, in collaboration with the National Corporation for Antiquities & Museums (Sudan) and funded by the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project (QSAP).

Three examples of black materials were excavated in the pharaonic town and cemeteries of Amara West: black paint on broken fragments of pottery vessels re-used as palettes; a black coating on a painted and plastered coffin fragment; and lumps of a crumbly black substance excavated from a tomb. The latter two were a mixture of bitumen and other organic products, including plant resin, indicating that this was probably applied as a ritual funerary liquid, a practice known from this time period in Egypt.

The crumbly black substance found in the tomb was attached to small pieces of linen, which suggested to researchers that this was an example of ‘black goo’ poured over the wrapped body during the funeral. This is the first time this practice has been documented in ancient Nubia. The components of the substance are consistent with black liquids used in funerals in Egypt. This new research reveals the use of this ritual far from the centre of power in Egypt, and in a tomb with both Egyptian and Nubian elements.

Egyptian black funerary liquids have been the focus of a recent research project at the British Museum, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The ingredients used to make the black funeral liquid were fat, wax, resin from Pistacia or conifer trees (imported from the eastern Mediterranean) and bitumen, usually from the Dead Sea. The use of similar ingredients in mummification balms and black varnishes on funerary statues suggests that this black liquid had multiple uses in funerary practices. A link to Osiris, the god of the dead, and ruler of the underworld in Ancient Egypt, can be made from the black colour of the substance and from the similarity of the liquid to mummification balms - Osiris is known as “the black one” and shown with black skin, and the mummified deceased is identified as an aspect of Osiris.

The scientific analysis was undertaken by Dr Kate Fulcher in the laboratories of the British Museum’s Scientific Research department, funded by the AHRC. Molecular analysis using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) identified the components of the different black materials collected by archaeologists at Amara West. Three separate methods were used to analyse the components of the substances and to discover the source of some of the bitumen as originating from the Dead Sea.

Dr Kate Fulcher said that “This research has revealed multiple uses of bitumen at Amara West. It is interesting that it was used as a paint because it is much easier to use ground charcoal, which we know they were also using, suggesting that the bitumen was imported for a special use. Discovering evidence of the practice of using black ritual funerary liquids in ancient Nubia opens up even further avenues of research across the British Museum collection and other archaeological sites. This work would not have been possible without the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)”

Dr. Neal Spencer said, “These findings epitomise how scientific analysis and ongoing collaboration with colleagues in Sudan can provide new insights into what is was like to live under the pharaonic empire. From the arrival of materials like bitumen from far-off sources, to the sensory aspects of preparing the dead for their journey to eternity, it brings us closer to ancient people”

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