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Petroleum Past: Advanced Multi-Analytical Approaches to Understanding the Practice and Economics of Bitumen Use in Ancient Iraq

Petroleum past: advanced multi-analytical approaches to understanding the practice and economics of bitumen use in ancient Iraq


Mark P. Barrow1 and Rebecca J. Stacey2

1Department of Chemistry, University of Warwick, CV4 7AL

2Department of Scientific Research, British Museum, London, WC1B 3DG


Background to project: 

“Petroleomics” is an emerging area of analytical science focusing on the characterization of petroleum samples and their derivatives using ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry. State-of-the-art instrumentation, such as Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance (FTICR) mass spectrometers, now offer sufficient resolving power and mass accuracy to determine the tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of components which comprise a crude oil, fuel/biofuel, or bitumen sample, for example. Researchers have the ability to understand complex mixtures in fine detail, determining subtle differences between samples which can influence their properties and be indicative of their origins.


Project summary:

The PhD studentship will interrogate the ancient economic history of bitumen in the context of its useful material properties that are a counterpoint to the energy resource functions that dominate our economic preoccupation with petroleum products today.  The long human relationship with bitumen is richly represented in the British Museum’s Middle East Collection.  Through chemical analysis, the bitumen will be traced to geological/geographical sources, to determine where people obtained material for different uses at different times and in different places.  The Collection provides the means to tell a multi-scalar economic story, from the large volume usage in architectural contexts as part of organised building activity to ad hoc small scale use for repair of votive figurines and everyday pottery.  Material journeys can be explored, for example by examining the co/divergent sources of clay and bitumen in sealed/coated ceramics.  Bitumen has been used as the sole manufacturing material for whole objects which pose questions about function related to the material properties.  It was also highly valued as a medicinal, invoking therapeutic properties, which may be perceived rather than actual. The project will focus on material from Iraq and the Persian Gulf.


The collaboration with University of Warwick allows for a methodological dimension to the research, examining the relative strengths of different analytical techniques to extract information from the molecular character of the material, and the potential for integrated interpretation of different types of datasets to enhance insights.  The Barrow Group at the University of Warwick specialises in petroleomics, using advanced mass spectrometers for high-resolution chemical fingerprinting.  These techniques are complementary to the traditional petroleum biomarker approaches used within the British Museum.  


Research resources and impact:

There will be a focus upon impact for items on display at the British Museum, thus directly connecting the research with subsequent public engagement (e.g. through blogs, lectures, and events). Petroleum products are well understood by the public and have particular resonance because of the associated climate change issues. The deep history of human interaction with bitumen is a story that showcases very different properties, of adhesion, hydrophobicity, colour, lustre and durability, and these are exemplified by the ancient uses represented in the British Museum’s Collection. Results from the project will be used to test the scope for developing these narratives in the Museum’s galleries highlighting different chronological and functional aspects of the story. The student will have access to the British Museum’s collections and libraries and will benefit from the support of secondary supervisor Dr. St John Simpson. They will have use of Dr. Stacey’s analytical facilities, including: sample preparation laboratory, GC-MS, py-GC-MS, GC-QTOF-MS and associated software; they will also have access to microscopy (optical/digital SEM), Raman spectroscopy, FTIR, and 2D and 3D imaging technologies. At the University of Warwick, the student will have access to the Ion Cyclotron Resonance Laboratory, including usage of upgraded 12 T and 15 T FTICR mass spectrometers, a timsTOF Pro mass spectrometer, and commercial and in-house data analysis tools provided by the Barrow Group. In addition to being part of a cohort at the University of Warwick, the student will benefit from inclusion in PhD student activities at the British Museum as well as access to £1,500 per annum student research expenses funding, participation in internal research fora, and gaining of experience of conducting scientific research with, and within, a heritage sector independent research organization (IRO).