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Egyptian leopard in bitumen covered wood
MFA# 03.1137
Human effigy
MFA# 1993.775


A common name for the organic, or hydrocarbon, portion of Asphalt. Bitumen is a dark brown or black solid to semisolid material. It was used by ancient Egyptians as an adhesive. Bitumen is currently is used in hot-melt adhesives, coating, paints, sealants, roofing and road coating. The name bitumen has been used as a synonym for Asphaltum, Tar, and Pitch and was also used as a commercial product name for a transparent, brown artists pigment made from asphaltum.

Synonyms and Related Terms

Bitumen (Deut.); bitume (Fr.); bitumen (Esp.); bitume (It.); betume (Port.); asphaltum; tar; pitch; asphaltum; tar; pitch;


Gilsonite (bitumen) Gettens.PNG


  • Combustible.
  • Softens at slightly elevated temperatures.
  • Ages poorly in dried oil films resulting in movement, disfigurement and/or cracks.

Physical and Chemical Properties

  • Soluble in carbon disulfide.
  • Refractive Index = 1.64 - 1.66

Resources and Citations

  • R.White "Brown and Black Organic Glazes, Pigments and Paints" National Gallery Technical Bulletin, 10:58-71, 1986.
  • Georgiana Languri, Molecular studies of Asphalt, Mummy and Kassel earth pigments, MOLART report 2004, available through Archetype Publications, London.
  • John S. Mills, Raymond White, The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects, Butterworth Heineman, London, 2nd ed., 1994
  • R. J. Gettens, G.L. Stout, Painting Materials, A Short Encyclopaedia, Dover Publications, New York, 1966
  • G.S.Brady, Materials Handbook, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1971 Comment: p. 76
  • Ralph Mayer, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1969 (also 1945 printing)
  • Dictionary of Building Preservation, Ward Bucher, ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York City, 1996
  • The Dictionary of Art, Grove's Dictionaries Inc., New York, 1996
  • Richard S. Lewis, Hawley's Condensed Chemical Dictionary, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 10th ed., 1993
  • Henry Hodges, Artifacts: An Introduction to Early Materials and Technology, Ronald P. Frye, Kingston, Canada, 1988
  • Thomas C. Jester (ed.), Twentieth-Century Building Materials, McGraw-Hill Companies, Washington DC, 1995
  • Van Nostrand's Scientific Encyclopedia, Douglas M. Considine (ed.), Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1976
  • Random House, Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Grammercy Book, New York, 1997
  • The American Heritage Dictionary or Encarta, via Microsoft Bookshelf 98, Microsoft Corp., 1998