Bitumen Boat

Two boats with sails and oars are depicted in the Madaba Mosaic Map, a miraculously preserved sixth-century giant floor map of Palestine. One has a cargo of white stuff, the other of a vibrantly coloured substance being shipped over the Dead Sea. The tesserae depicting the boatmen have been smashed and replaced with a random red-and-yellow mix of mosaic pieces:

The boat at left carries salt, which is there for the digging on the Dead Sea coast. Recently I asked an archaeologist friend what he thought was aboard the boat at right and he promptly said: bitumen. This surprised me, but he explained that the Dead Sea used to be covered in floating globs of asphalt. It would have glistened, so perhaps that is why the mosaic shows it rainbow-fashion.

I have since learned that under the Romans, the asphalt or bitumen was so ample that it was harvested from the beaches or fished out of the water and exported. Hot work, but it was much in demand by the glue trade around the Mediterranean (and had earlier been used, it is said, for mummification in Egypt).

One of the most notable manuscripts to be digitized in the past week by the Vatican Library is the Cartulary of the Chapter of the Holy SepulchreVat.lat.4947, a set of records of land endowments and dealings by Christian priests in Crusader Jerusalem in the period 1162-1165. From a review by Olivier Guyotjeannin, I learn that the Cartulary contains a record dealing with salt and bitumen harvesting at the time of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

I wonder how long the bitumen trade continued overall. Evidently for a good two thousand years! An account by George Frederick Wright in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915) quotes Josephus saying lumps of asphalt as big as an ox were common in his day. But by the 19th century, big asphalt seepages from the lake bottom were rare, coinciding with earthquakes, though lake dwellers still knew to harvest and sell the releases. Today the last remains are only pebble-sized.

In all, the library released 39 digitizations in the past week. My list:
  1. Barb.lat.813,
  2. Barb.lat.4400,
  3. Ott.lat.577,
  4. Ross.49,
  5. Ross.125.pt.1 (Upgraded to HQ),
  6. Ross.126.pt.1,
  7. Ross.157,
  8. Ross.286,
  9. Urb.lat.1301,
  10. Vat.lat.2538,
  11. Vat.lat.2541,
  12. Vat.lat.4720,
  13. Vat.lat.4756 (Upgraded to HQ),
  14. Vat.lat.4818 (Upgraded to HQ),
  15. Vat.lat.4821 (Upgraded to HQ),
  16. Vat.lat.4822,
  17. Vat.lat.4824 (Upgraded to HQ),
  18. Vat.lat.4826, a mathematics manuscript datable to 1450, by Iacobus de Florentia. See Jordanus
  19. Vat.lat.4829, mathematics anthology in Italian, dated 1480, see Jordanus. The word algorithm was established in the West by this time:
    Also tons of squiggly sums:
  20. Vat.lat.4832,
  21. Vat.lat.4856,
  22. Vat.lat.4884,
  23. Vat.lat.4885,
  24. Vat.lat.4892 (Upgraded to HQ),
  25. Vat.lat.4893 (Upgraded to HQ), a decretum
  26. Vat.lat.4907,
  27. Vat.lat.4919 (Upgraded to HQ),
  28. Vat.lat.4923, here, the small strips used for strengthening the binding formed part of the same manuscript of Gregory as is found in Vat.lat.4918 (Lowe):
  29. Vat.lat.4926,
  30. Vat.lat.4927,
  31. Vat.lat.4930,
  32. Vat.lat.4935,
  33. Vat.lat.4941 (Upgraded to HQ),
  34. Vat.lat.4947 (Upgraded to HQ), the Cartulary of the Chapter of the Holy Sepulchre (above, also discussed in a blog post two years ago).
  35. Vat.lat.4956.pt.1,
  36. Vat.lat.4956.pt.2,
  37. Vat.lat.4957 (Upgraded to HQ),
  38. Vat.lat.4959 (Upgraded to HQ),
  39. Vat.pers.31,
This is Piggin's Unofficial List number 210. Thanks to @gundormr for harvesting. If you have corrections or additions, please use the comments box below. Follow me on Twitter (@JBPiggin) for news of more additions to DigiVatLib.

Nissenbaum, Arie (1978). 'Dead Sea Asphalts — Historical Aspects', Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, 62, 837–44. Online

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