Bitumen is the oldest known engineering material and has been used from the earliest times as an adhesive, sealant and waterproofing agent. As long ago as 6000BC the thriving ship-building industry in Sumeria used naturally occurring bitumen, found in surface seepage in the area.
In the Indus Valley, now in Pakistan, there is a particularly well-preserved water tank which dates back to around 3,000 BC. The stone blocks in the tank's walls are bonded with natural bitumen and there is a vertical bituminous core in the centre of the wall this same principle is used today in modern dam design. It is believed that Nebuchadnezzar was one of the early exponents of bitumen as there is evidence that he used the material for waterproofing the masonry in his palace and as grout for stone roads.
Bitumen's versatility as a construction material is unparalleled. Having been used as an adhesive, sealant and waterproofing agent for over 8,000 years, its uses now include: the construction and maintenance of roads, airfields and all areas where asphalt is used; roofing; damp proofing; dam, reservoir and pool linings; soundproofing, pipe coatings, paints, and many others.
There appears to have been little development in materials used until the 19th century when the refining of bitumen from crude petroleum oils began. The vast majority of bitumen used by today's construction industry is refined bitumen, derived from crude oil. It is a sophisticated product available in many forms and grades developed by the bitumen industry for specific uses. The process of refining bitumen was pioneered in the early 1900s in the United States, giving rise to a myriad of contemporary industrial applications.