University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Ancient Repairs at Ur and the Power of Bitumen


October 16, 2015

One thing that we all love to find on objects in the Museum collections are ancient repairs.  These are repairs made to an object during its period of use. So, imagine that mug you use every day for your morning coffee.  One day that mug breaks and you fix it with Super glue and go on using it until one day you decide it’s really too broken and not worth keeping anymore and get rid of it (i.e. leave it in the garden, throw it in the trash, etc.).  The mug at that point has now entered the archaeological record.  Then years from now (let’s say 5,000 years later give or take) people dig it up and examine, analyze, and research your mug.  They may even put it back together again using fancy futuristic methods (i.e. not Super glue).   The ancient repair in this case would be that repair you did with Super glue when you were still using the mug.

mugs_1

Now to get back to Ur and Mesopotamia, for the people of Ur, their Super glue was bitumen.  Bitumen is a naturally occurring viscous mixture of hydrocarbons (including petroleum).  In ancient Mesopotamia it had many uses.  For example, we have model boats such as this one (B17706) that were made from a bituminous paste.  It was also used to make the handle for the copper alloy tool featured in these posts.

B17706: a model boat made with bitumen
B17706: a model boat made with bitumen

For this post though, I want to show how it was also used to repair ceramic materials. Here for example you can see it was used to repair this drainpipe (30-12-251). The bitumen would have sealed the join or crack and as an oil-based material it would have been water resistant allowing the drainpipe to continue to function.

30-12-251: a drainpipe from Ur. The details show fragments with bitumen repairs.
30-12-251: a drainpipe from Ur. The details show fragments with bitumen repairs.

Similarly, you can see it here with this bowl (31-16-339), where again the water resistant nature of the repair would make sense for the continued use of the object.

31-16-339_BT2

Top and bottom views of 31-16-339 showing a repair with bitumen
Top and bottom views of 31-16-339 showing a repair with bitumen

Finally, some of the figurines also show evidence of bitumen having been used for repairs. 35-1-127 is my favorite example, although there are other examples as well (see below). As you can see, the bitumen paste was used to reattach the foot to the leg (unfortunately we don’t have the rest of this figure).

35-1-127: a leg and foot of a figure with a repair at the ankle.
35-1-127: a leg and foot of a figure with a repair at the ankle.

What I find so particularly interesting is that no attempt was made to wipe off the excess bitumen or hide the repair. What clearly mattered was not that they be beautiful but that they be complete.

31-16-920: a plaque showing evidence of an ancient repair along the top break edge
31-16-920: a plaque showing evidence of an ancient repair along the top break edge

Photo Credit: Penn Museum


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