You and I live in a petroleum-based global economy. Most likely you’ve heard of the theory of “peak oil,” meaning that there’s only so much oil in the ground. Once we start running out, prices will skyrocket. Scientists, economists, and oil industry representatives have been arguing about this theory for years. Leonardo Maugeri, an energy company director, said we’ll never run out—we’ll just supplement traditional oil wells with unconventional methods, like fracking, or extracting petroleum from tar sands (bitumen). And of course, we’ll drill in the deep ocean. Georges Monbiot, an environmentalist, responded that that there is more than enough oil from unconventional sources for capitalism to “deep-fry” the world with climate change.
Theories aside, everyone agrees that petroleum is getting harder and harder to access. It wasn’t always this way. Natural oil seeps occurred in many places, most notably the ancient Middle East, and people figured out how to use it early on. Bitumen was found on the tools of Syrian Neanderthals. Subsequent peoples employed bitumen for waterproofing boats and baskets, for making mummies, and in construction. Liquid petroleum—which Herodotus called stone oil—was used as medicine and for lighting.
In The Throne in the Heart of the Sea, two of my heroines encounter petroleum in ancient Assyria, which is now Iraq. The women are part of a diplomatic delegation:
On the last evening of the festivities everyone gathered in the great square outside the palace to watch the sun set and the full moon rise, while King Ashurnasirpal offered to the gods. Afterward he led his army in a torchlight parade through the streets of the city.
The foreign delegates were given places of honor on the staircase, the better to appreciate their host. Tamar caught a glimpse of the king standing behind his driver in a four-horse chariot, his armor glittering in the moonlight. As he rode by the staircase he turned toward his guests and waved stiffly.
Next a pair of elephants in tasseled blankets lumbered by, casting shadows like thunderheads. Tamar had never been so close to anything so large. She shivered with delight.
Then came a marching band, then siege engines—all enlarged and multiplied by torchlight shadows, moonlight shadows. More chariots. Cavalry. The streets reeked of dung, and the foul smoke of the torches. Bez wrinkled her nose. “That’s beyond rancid. You’d think he could afford to burn fresh oil.”
“Must be stone oil,” said Tamar. “They don’t have olive trees, but they’ve got lots of this stuff –it just oozes out of the ground.”
“Ugh. I wouldn’t fry a fish in it.”
Heavy infantry in conical helmets, pikes at the ready. More drummers and flautists. Companies of bowmen and slingers. It was the most impressive display of military might that Tamar had ever seen.