Asphalt – Before Roads

Asphalt use in Ancient times

Asphalt/bitumen was used for waterproofing and as an adhesive. Asphalt usage for these purposes dates back to at least the fifth millennium BC in the early Indus Valley Sites like Mehrgarh. Using asphalt/bitumen to line things such as baskets that were used to gather crops.

Early asphalt use in Europe

Around 1553 “Pissasphalto,” a mixture of pitch and bitumen, was used in the Republic of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) for tarring of ships that would be exported to a Venice marketplace and could then be bought by anyone.

Asphalt Use in Photography and Art

There was a time when bitumen was used in early photographic technology. Around 1826 or 1827, it was used by French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. He used it to make the oldest surviving photograph right from nature. The bitumen material was thinly coated onto a pewter plate that was then exposed in a camera. The exposure to light would harden the bitumen material and make it insoluble. At which point the material was rinsed with a solvent so that the sufficiently light-struck areas would remain. It took several hours of exposure in the camera. This made bitumen a very impractical resource for ordinary photography. From the 1850s to the 1920s Bitumen was in common use as a  photoresist in producing printing plates for many photo-mechanical printing processes.

Early Asphalt use in the US

Asphalt/bitumen’s first use in the New World was by native peoples on the west coast. The Tongva, Luiseño and Chumash peoples would collect the naturally occurring material called Asphalt/bitumen that would exude to the surface above the petroleum deposits beneath it. They all would use the materials as an adhesive. It would be used as a sealant on baskets so that they could carry water in them. Asphaltum would also be used as a seal for the planks on ocean-going canoes.