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When Asphalt and Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth

Aug 17, 2007
You may not be aware of it but a part of the highways and parking lots that you drive your car into may have been around for millions of years! Those roadways and pavements' considerable history can be attributed to one if its key component - asphalt. Yes, the asphalt that is used to pave the roads that you drive through has indeed been around since the prehistoric times to merit a discussion.

Asphalt has been dated back as early as the prehistoric period. Evidence of this claim can be attributed prehistoric animal preserves found by archaeologists at La Brea Tar Pit, Los Angeles California that have been observed to have asphalt deposits.

There should be no surprise to it already because by definition, asphalt is a black, viscous, cement-like bitumen (an organic byproduct of organic matter) that occurs naturally in crude petroleum. Since fossil deposits produce petroleum, it is natural to find asphalt that can date back to millions of years ago.

Even if it is a byproduct, technology has found different ways and means to utilize asphalt. However, industries at present do not use natural deposits of asphalts found directly from its source. The asphalt that is used these days has to be separated and isolated from crude oil such as naphtha, gasoline and diesel.

It was in the ancient times when natural asphalt was used extensively by civilizations.
Ancient Babylonians used natural asphalt as a building material. It can even be noted in the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus. If you browse through these books of the Bible, you can read that asphalt has been referred to several times as a "caulking material".

From recent archaeological excavations, it has been found that asphalt was a significant material for ancient civilizations.

Dating back as far as 3200-540 BC, asphalt has been used by ancient civilizations near the Indus Valley such as the Mesopotamians as cement for masonry, a material for street construction and as a waterproofing layer for temple baths and water tanks to name a few.

Even Egyptian mummies had their fair share of asphalt. Mummies dating back as far as 300 BC had asphalt as one of its important materials for its mummification.

It was not until 1802 when asphalt was first used to pave roads. Back then, asphalt that was used was not yet refined and processed. Rock asphalt was first used in France for floors, bridges and sidewalk surfacing. Philadelphia then followed in 1838 when rock asphalt was also used to pave sidewalk constructions in the said state.

Before the use of processed asphalt, smooth and level roads were unheard of. Rocks, boulders and chunks of asphalt were used but not evened out to provide smooth and flat roads. Processed asphalt was not used up until 1870 when Newark, New Jersey claimed the title of the first state to have the first processed asphalt-laid pavement

Since then, the demand for processed asphalt has gradually increased. However, as the industrial age pushed forward, the demand for asphalt increased dramatically. From the 3 million-ton demand in 1926, the demand for asphalt increased up to 11 million tons in 1950, following the World War II.

The advantages of asphalt emulsion (a mixture of asphalt, water and an emulsifying agent that enables the asphalt to mix well with water) also helped in the boom of asphalt production.

During the 1970s when an energy conservation measure was issued by the Federal Energy Administration, asphalt emulsion became a commendable candidate for road construction. Since it did not require petroleum solvent to make it liquid and it can be used even without additional heat, the use of asphalt emulsion contributed much to the energy conservation drive of the government.

In retrospect, the asphalt on our present day roads and highways may not be millions of years old. However, the next time we walked through a sidewalk or drove to a parking lot; let us not disregard the history and the advantages that this age-old material has given us.
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James Monahan is the owner and Senior Editor of
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