Asphaltum is probably the substance denoted by the Heb. חֵמָר, chemar'; Arab. chomar (Sept. ἄσφαλτος, Auth. Vers. "slime," Ge 11:3; Ge 14:10; Ex 2:3, where Luther, like the modern rabbins, translates by "clay"). The Hebrew and Arabic names probably refer to the reddish color of some of the specimens (Dioscorides, i, 99). (The Greek name, whence the Latin asphaltum, has doubtless given name to the Lake Asphaltites [Dead Sea], whence it was abundantly obtained.) Usually, however, asphaltum, or compact bitumen, is of a shining black color; it is solid and brittle, with a conchoidal fracture, altogether not unlike common pitch. Its specific gravity is from 1 to 1.6, and it consists chiefly of bituminous oil, hydrogen gas, and charcoal. It is found partly as a solid dry fossil, intermixed in layers of plaster, marl, or slate, and partly as liquid tar flowing from cavities in rocks or in the earth, or swimming upon the surface of lakes or natural wells (Burckhardt, ii, 77). To judge from Ge 14:10, mines of asphaltum must have existed formerly on the spot where subsequently the Dead Sea, or Lake Asphaltites, was formed, such as Mariti (Travels, 4:27) discovered on the western shore of that sea. The Palestine earth-pitch, however, seems to have had the preference over all the other sorts (Plin. 28:23; Discor. i, 100). It was used among the ancients partly for covering boats, paying the bottoms of vessels (comp. Niebuhr, ii, 336; Ge 6:14; Ex 2:3; Josephus, War, 4:8, 4; Buckingham, Mesopot. p. 346), and partly as a substitute for mortar in buildings; and it is thought that the bricks of which the walls of Babylon were built (Ge 11:3; Strabo, 16:743; Herod. i, 179; Plin. 35:51; Ammian. Marcell. 23:6; Virtruv. viii 3; comp. Josephus, Ant. i, 4, 3) had been cemented with hot bitumen, which imparted to them great solidity. In ancient Babylon asphaltum was made use of also for fuel, as the environs (in the place called Is or Hit, see D'Herbelot, Bibl. Orient. s.v. Hit) have from the earliest times been renowned for the abundance of that substance (Diod. Sic. ii, 12; Herod. i, 179; Dion. Cass. lxviii, 26; Strabo, 14:8, 4; Plut. Alex. c. 35; Theodoret, Qucest. in Genes. 59; Ritter, Erdk. ii, 345;
Buckingham, Mesopot. p. 346). Neither were the ancient Jews unacquainted with the medicinal properties of that mineral (Josephus, War, 4:8, 4). Asphaltum was also used among the ancient Egyptians for embalming the dead. Strabo (xvi) and many other ancient and modern writers assert that only the asphalt of the Dead Sea was used for that purpose; but it has in more recent times been proved, from experiments made on mummies, that the Egyptians employed slaggy mineral pitch in embalming the dead. This operation was performed in three different ways: first, with slaggy Mineral pitch alone; second, with a mixture of this bitumen and a liquor extracted from the cedar, called cedoria; and third, with a similar mixture, to which resinous and aromatic substances were added (Hauy, Mineral. ii, 315). SEE BITUMEN.
Asphaltum is found in masses on the shore of the Dead Sea, or floating on the surface of its waters. Dr. Shaw (Travels 'in Barbary and the Levant) was told that this bitumen, for which the Dead Sea is so famous, rises at certain times from the bottom of the sea in large pieces of semi-globular form, which, as soon as they touch the surface and the external air operates upon them, burst asunder in a thousand pieces with a terrible crash, like the pulvisfulminans of the chemists. This, however, he continues, only occurs along the shore; for in deep water it is supposed that these eruptions show themselves in large columns of smoke, which are often seen to rise from the lake. The fact of the ascending smoke has been much questioned by naturalists; and although apparently confirmed by the testimonies of various travellers, collected by Biisching in his Erdbeschreibung, it is not established by the more observant travellers of recent years. Pococke (Description of the East, etc., ii, 46) presumes that the thick clumps of asphalt collected at the bottom of the lake have been brought up by subterranean fire, and afterward melted by the agitation of the waters. Also Strabo (xvi, 764) speaks of subterraneous fires in those parts (comp. Burckhardt, Syria, 394). Dr. Robinson, when in the neighborhood, heard from the natives the same story which had previously been told to Seetzen and Burckhardt, namely, that the asphaltum flows down the face of a precipice on the eastern shore of the lake until a large mass is collected, when, from its weight or some shock, it breaks off and falls into the sea (Seetzen, in Zach's f1onatl. Correspond. 18:441; Burckhardt, p. 394; Robinson, ii, 229). This, however, he strongly doubts for assigned reasons, and it is agreed that nothing of the kind occurs on the western shore. He rather inclines to receive the testimony of the local Arabs, who affirm that the bitumen only ,appears after earthquakes. They allege that after the earthquake of 1834 huge quantities of it were cast upon the shore, of which the Jehalin Arabs alone took about 60 kuntars (each of 98 lbs.) to market; and it was corroboratively recollected by the Rev. Eli Smith that a large amount had that year been purchased at Beirut by the Frank merchants. There was another earthquake on January 1, 1837, and soon after a large mass of asphaltum (compared by one person to an island, and by another to a house) was discovered floating on the sea, and was driven aground on the western side near Usdum. The neighboring Arabs assembled, cut it up with axes, removed it by camel loads, and sold it at the rate of four piastres the rutl, or pound; the product is said to have been about $3000. Except during these two years, the sheik of the Jehalin, a man fifty years old, had never known bitumen appear in the sea, nor heard of it from his fathers (Robinson's Bib. Resedrches, ii, 230). This information may serve to illustrate the account of Josephus that "the sea in many places sends up black masses of asphaltum, which float on the surface, having the form and size of headless oxen' (War, 9:8, 4); and that of Diodorus (ii, 48), who states that the bitumen is thrown up in masses, covering sometimes two or three plethra, and having the appearance of islands. SEE PITCH.