The Ancient History of Petroleum

oil, fire, deposits, worship, burning, natural, fuel and rocks

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The inhabitants of the Hanover district, in Ger many, are said to have used petroleum for wagon grease and illuminating purposes since time imme morial, obtaining their supplies from deep pits, called "Fettlocher," or "grease holes," but their crude methods could not have afforded more than a very scant supply. It was gathered by plunging bundles of long reeds into the water. The oil ad hering to these reeds, when the bundle was drawn out, could be separated from them by twisting the bundles in the same way as one would wring water from a wet cloth.

Although Great Britain contains no important petroleum deposits, attention was drawn to the bi tuminous rocks at a very early date, and before the end of the seventeenth century a patent had been granted for a method of making pitch, tar, and oil out of a kind of stone. Oil so made was sold as "Betton's British Oil," to cure strains and rheu matism. Thus, almost before the oil regions of America had been seen by the white men, petro leum for some purpose or other had been used in practically every country of Europe.

Among the nations of the Far East, also, the knowledge of bitumens goes far back into the ages of the dim past. The ancient records of China de scribe the use of natural gas for both fuel and light centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. Japanese history says that the "burning water," as petroleum was called, was first discov ered and used in the Echigo district about 615 A.D. But in spite of the fact that the industry has been prosecuted almost continuously since then, the primitive methods used until recently yielded only a small quantity daily. In the islands of the East Indies petroleum deposits have only recently been developed, but the natives have known of its exist ence and have used it in the preparation of leather ever since the advent of Europeans in the region. Petroleum deposits in the Indian mainland, espe cially in British Burma, have been worked since remote antiquity, so remote, in fact, that they are often regarded as perhaps the oldest petroleum wells in the world. Here an important industry was developed before the American colonies had spread beyond the Alleghanies, and long before the beginning of the last century, oil from pits in the Irrawady valley was sent to many parts of In dia. Small quantities, passing under the name "Rangoon oil," occasionally even found their way to far off Europe, along with the rest of the valu able trade from the Orient.

The one locality, however, which stands out more prominently than all others in the ancient history of petroleum is the Baku district, on the shores of the Caspian Sea—the borderland between Europe and Asia. Here the distinction of great antiquity is inseparably interwoven with the story of the mys tic rites of the fire worshipers, followers of Zoro aster, in the strange Parsee religion. Here, in the sacred region of the everlasting fire, it is believed that the imaginative, superstitious Oriental minds were first impressed with a phenomenon, to them supernaturally mysterious, the work of some unseen mighty spirit. Fires proceeding from the springs of natural gas are supposed to have existed for un known ages in the Caucasus isthmus, and burning without apparent fuel, it was but an easy step for the perplexed, half-savage people to regard fire, and especially this eternal fire, as the emblem of a beneficent god. Here, then, in sight of the eternal flames, flickering above crannies in the rock, lighted no one knows how, man, subdued with awe, came first to worship the mystery of fire. Here, for count less generations, hordes of Parsee worshipers came from Persia and far away India, from across the Caspian and the river Oxus, on pilgrimages to Baku, the holy city of fire, to their ancient stone temples and shrines, dedicated to the hidden power of flames that never ceased. Even until a genera tion ago, the famous temple of Surakhany wel comed its devotees from India, who still came to worship at the altars where the fires burned un quenched after thousands of years. To-day pipes have been fitted to the crannies in the rocks; the gas is used by enterprising natives to warm their huts or cook their food, and profane oil derricks dot the surface. But in spite of all the dirt and ugliness in a modern oil region, the romance of his tory still hovers over the place where man perhaps first learned the nature of fire, and bowed himself down in its worship.

How these everlasting fires were lighted origi nally must remain a mystery forever, but long ago it was recognized that there was nothing occult or mysterious in the apparent burning without fuel. Natural petroleum gases not only issued steadily from crevices in the rocks, but also, it is said, in flammable vapors were given off from the earth.

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