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Ah, dag nam it. You wouldn’t let it lie, Armstrong. You wouldn’t let it lie! 😉

Okay, I’ll spare you all the previous, readers. Here are the links:

The reason I am putting in all of this effort is that this will eventually become part of a book project, so I need to be as accurate as possible. Thanks to Armstrong for pushing, here.

Before I get started (again), I am going to open with a different tack.

The problem of a pitch-covered basket to safeguard a baby

I think we have perhaps been concentrating on the historical aspect of pitch without thinking about putting a baby in a pitched reed basket. One of my next articles details the utter incredulity of the story in general.

Pitch is heavy. Baskets are holey. The idea of putting the baby in a basket and into a river (full of crocodiles) is not to kill it. It’s a lot of effort to go to, otherwise. So this is a carefully thought-out plan to offload the baby to someone else without doing what actually happens in society: giving it to someone else or leaving it somewhere. Instead, the mother places it in a pitch basket and sends it downstream. Baskets are, to some significant degree, holey. You wouldn’t use them to carry sand. so to make this waterproof – and I mean totally waterproof, since any single hole means the death of the baby – the mother has to completely cover the reed basket in thick, sticky pitch. To ensure total covering, the basket will be properly daubed in the stuff. This would be one heavy basket.

And then you place a baby in it.

Furthermore, I am yet to see any contemporaneous evidence for pitch-covered baskets. Putting a baby in such a thing and sending it packing to be fortuitously picked up by the royal household is fantasy. This is more Disney fantasy than history, I’m afraid. That Armstrong has been brainwashed by cultural normalisation is his problem, evidently.

You see, to pitch-cover a boat’s hull, the heaviness of a coat of pitch in ratio to the buoyancy of the vessel is negligible. Or you wad and pitch the gap between the planks. Either way, not a problem. But to waterproof a reed basket so that it definitely has no hole whatsoever (or baby dies), that makes one heavy basket, somewhat counter-productive. And that’s a lot of pitch (which differs in weight to, say, pine resin as used elsewhere in the world) before even putting the baby in! Pitch that we have no evidence for in this part of Egypt and used for this practice.

It’s possible, of course. It’s just no very probable.

Back to it

Okay, so was pitch available to make a pitch-covered reed basket in New Kingdom time in the Nile River basin? Aside from the utter ridiculousness of the overtly mythical story, it looks like the birth story was appropriated from the Sargon of Akkad birth myth that predated the Moses birth myth, evidentially, and, to boot, pitch was common (for waterproofing) in Mesopotamia, and not in the relevant time and place in Egypt. I originally stated that pitch was “an anachronism in the Exodus story”. I stand by my claim.

Armstrong had previously “refuted” me by using this source:  “The significance of petroleum bitumen in ancient Egyptian mummies”, by K. A. Clark, S. Ikram, and R. P. Evershed, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 10-28-16.

It included:

Significantly, none of the mummies dating before ca 1000 BC contained detectable bitumen biomarkers. . . .

The earliest evidence obtained herein for detectable bitumen was obtained from the Glasgow male mummy (MTB G44), which dates to the Early Third Intermediate Period (ca 1064–927 BC; figure 3b). . . .

The earliest evidence for the presence of bitumen in a mummy balm derives from a single individual dating to the end of the New Kingdom (1250–1050 BC; [18]). The use of bitumen in balms becomes more prevalent during the Third Intermediate Period, ca 750 BC and was extensively used during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

This is important for what Armstrong has subsequently said, so I must remind you of my point:

None of this is about waterproofing. Initially, according to his own source, “it was thought that the trade route for the Egyptians to the Dead Sea was only available in Ptolemaic [330 BCE] and later times”[2] but there is now earlier evidence. Is this earlier evidence good for Armstrong? Not really.

So what of these mummies? Well, the Glasgow male mummy (MTB G44) does not fit into the timescale. A number of others did not include bitumen biomarkers, thus indicating its use was not widespread. The ones that did contain bitumen were described as “bituminous”, containing low levels thereof. The conclusion to his lauded paper?

It has been demonstrated that for the first 2000 years in which mummification was practised prior to the New Kingdom petroleum bitumen (or natural asphalt) was not used in embalming as a general practice. The earliest evidence for the presence of bitumen in a mummy balm derives from a single individual dating to the end of the New Kingdom (1250–1050 BC; [18]). The use of bitumen in balms becomes more prevalent during the Third Intermediate Period, ca 750 BC and was extensively used during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Radiocarbon analyses have shown that even when present, balms were likely never wholly composed of bitumen. This might reflect its initial rarity, or the belief that some of the traditional materials had to be used if the mummification were to be efficacious. [My emphasis]

So Armstrong’s source actually supports my claim. This is about embalming, not waterproofing, and then this is one single mummy dating to hundreds of years after the life of Moses. This changed my probability assessment of pitch being used to waterproof a basket by some 10%, as I admitted previously.

Give Armstrong his dues, he’s persistent. He really wants to “win” this argument.

His latest comment finds another source to survey:

I found additional evidence (four different instances) of use of pitch in Egypt or (in the case of Nubia) an Egyptian-occupied area, during the lifetime of Moses:

“Bitumen from the Dead Sea in Early Iron Age Nubia”, Kate Fulcher, Rebecca Stacey & Neal Spencer, Scientific Reports, 5-20-20:


Bitumen has been identified for the first time in Egyptian occupied Nubia, from within the town of Amara West, occupied from around 1300 to 1050 BC. The bitumen can be sourced to the Dead Sea using biomarkers, evidencing a trade in this material from the eastern Mediterranean to Nubia in the New Kingdom or its immediate aftermath. Two different end uses for bitumen were determined at the site. Ground bitumen was identified in several paint palettes, and in one case can be shown to have been mixed with plant gum, which indicates the use of bitumen as a ground pigment. Bitumen was also identified as a component of a friable black solid excavated from a tomb, and a black substance applied to the surface of a painted and plastered coffin fragment. Both contained plant resin, indicating that this substance was probably applied as a ritual funerary liquid, a practice identified from this time period in Egypt. The use of this ritual, at a far remove from the royal Egyptian burial sites at Thebes, indicates the importance of this ritual as a component of the funeral, and the value attributed to the material components of the black liquid.


Black materials were excavated from different contexts in the pharaonic town of Amara West in Upper Nubia, dating from around 1300 to 1050 BC (19th–20th dynasties), and its cemeteries (1250–800 BC). The materials were of three types: black paints on ceramic sherds used as palettes; a black coating on a coffin plaster fragment; and a black friable material excavated from a tomb. . . .

Amara West lies between the Second and Third Nile Cataracts, in the heart of Nubia, a region that stretched from Aswan in southern Egypt southwards to the Sixth Nile Cataract (Fig. 1). This region was intermittently occupied by pharaonic Egypt in the third and second millennium BC; during the New Kingdom (c. 1548–1086 BC), pharaonic towns were founded to control and administer resource extraction. . . .

Molecular evidence for bitumen from the New Kingdom (pre-dating the Third Intermediate Period) [prior to 1070 BC] is limited to the black coating on the coffin of Henutmehyt [c. 1250 BC; the approximate death date of Moses] in the British Museum (EA48001)46 [see source], the balm of a mummified man from Thebes13, an identification of Dead Sea bitumen in a 19th Dynasty [1292-1189 BC, which overlaps the life of Moses] “mummy balm”12, and the presence of hopanes in the black coatings on an 18th Dynasty [1550-1292 BC, which overlaps the life of Moses] canopic chest and anthropoid coffin49. . . .


. . . Given that evidence for bitumen use in Egypt in the New Kingdom has previously been limited to a few individual samples from objects with poor provenance, this study provides proof for a much more extensive use than might have been suspected, with a secure archaeological context. [JP – WATCH THIS SPACE FOR QUOTE-MINING]…

See also: “Pigments, incense, and bitumen from the New Kingdom town and cemetery on Sai Island in Nubia”, Kate Fulcher, Julia Budka, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 33, October 2020.


Damn, I’ve lost. I’ve been had.

Except, let’s do some thorough analysis of his source…

First of all, this is Nubia, modern-day Sudan. Not the Egypt he is hoping for but an Egyptian colony, and not the area we have been focusing on.

Literally, none of this is about bitumen as pitch used to waterproof. Different area, different use. At best, this is ground-up bitumen to be used to mix with other substances to make paint. And also for use in funerary rituals, connected with later Egyptian mummification methods, involving bitumen. For his “four uses”, three of them concern funerary rituals, the other being specialised paint.

From the source (my emphasis to highlight aspects concerning either embalming or other funerary rituals):

Two cemeteries are associated with Amara West, referred to as Cemeteries C and D. A large rock-cut  tomb (G321) in Cemetery D, originally marked with a pyramid, was first used  for burials in the 20th Dynasty (c. 1190–1086 BC), with further use of the tomb into the 8th century BC. The archaeological deposits within, which have been disturbed in modern times (as evidenced by the presence of cigarette butts), included bone, wooden fragments and small pieces of painted plaster from coffins, and a large quantity of chunks of friable black material (F8623). The black material was scattered about in the fill, but one layer was preserved spread over an area approximately 20 cm square next to skeletal remains (Fig. 2b). The thickness was about 2 cm. The larger chunks retained textile impressions, indicating that it originally adhered to a textile, possibly wrappings on a body (Fig. 2c); the excavation records state that “bitumen with traces of wrapping” were found in this context. The chunks are too small to be able to tell if the wrappings adhered to the outside or inside of the textile. Either way, it appears that they formed part of the preparation of the body for burial, examples of this practice are known from other coffins (e.g. coffin EA20744 in the British Museum11).

The composition of the G321 material is very similar to mummification “balms”, however the black material from Amara West was not found on the body or in body cavities, but instead in scattered fragments and in one area quite a thick, flat puddle close to but not on a (disturbed) body. The black material was applied as a liquid, which allowed textile impressions to form on the surface of the substance when it solidified. This suggests it may have been applied to the exterior of a wrapped body. Black ritually applied liquids are known from the exterior of wrapped bodies and funerary containers from Egypt, and are the subject of current research at the British Museum…. The components of the black material from Amara West and the context in which it was found are consistent with the Egyptian black funerary liquids. The black material from the coffin fragments from G244 also contained bitumen and pistacia resin, and appears to have been applied to the surface of the coffin. Given the similarity in components and context to the material in G321, it seems likely that this was also a ritually applied black liquid. The use of similar ingredients in mummification balms and black varnishes on funerary statues suggests that this black liquid had multiple uses in funerary practice

In this context it is interesting to see evidence for the use of a ritual black liquid that is linked to the Egyptian embalming tradition….

The black substance from G321 and the coffin fragments are examples of an Egyptian funerary ritual using long-distance imported ingredients, for at least two individuals on two separate occasions. The use of this ritual at a far remove from the royal Egyptian burial sites at Thebes, and in graves reflecting the entanglement of Egyptian and Nubian funerary traditions, indicates the importance of this ritual as a component of the funeral, and the value attributed to the material components of the black liquid.

So I had previously analysed its use in embalming, as a funerary ritual, and this is just an extension of that – a Nubian extension of bitumen used in funerary rites. I did love Armstrong’s reply to me:

You read very poorly (especially when you are determined to disagree with what you’re reading). None of the new evidence had to do with embalming.

Because, as you can see from my emphases above, he may have been a little hasty with that comment, with his accusation about my reading skills. He went to the effort of highlighting quite how wrong I was! And yet, even after the above quotes emphasised by me, we also have this quote from the other link he threw at me:

Black fluids containing bitumen were used in Egypt as part of the process of mummification and for funerary anointing rituals…

But Armstrong’s source also details non-funerary findings, to remind you:

Black materials were excavated from different contexts in the pharaonic town of Amara West in Upper Nubia, dating from around 1300 to 1050 BC (19th–20th dynasties), and its cemeteries (1250–800 BC). The materials were of three types: black paints on ceramic sherds used as palettes; a black coating on a coffin plaster fragment; and a black friable material excavated from a tomb.

The inference is, because you can make black paint from carbon by burning anything, it is odd that you would go to the trouble of making paint pigment with bitumen, so it must be something special.

Given the ease with which carbon can be obtained, i.e. by burning anything organic, the use of bitumen as a pigment must have had a significance. We do not know the end-use of the black pigment in the palettes, but it is possible it was being reserved for a particular use.

So, yes, there is some evidence that Nubia used bitumen in the creation of funerary substances and paint pigments. Are we getting waterproofing? No. And not even tool glue. But this is another use to add to the collection of uses elsewhere. So there is that.

An important part of his source is as follows. This is a lot of nitpicking, but hey ho.

The biomarkers in the black materials from Amara West are consistent with those of Dead Sea examples, which is likely to be evidence for a trade in solid bitumen from the Dead Sea into Nubia over the 19th and 20th dynasties (c. 1300 to 1070 BC). Evidence for the trade in bitumen into the Nile Valley during the New Kingdom has so far been very limited, so this would be a major contribution to this dataset. Alternatively, the bitumen found in G321 may relate to the later use of the tomb, in the period after Egyptian occupation, as ceramics diagnostic of that date and distinctive Nubian wooden funerary bed fragments were found in the same context. If this is the case, it may reflect the adoption, and perhaps reinterpretation, of Egyptian funerary practises by individuals who identified as Nubian. Previous studies have found bitumen in mummification materials from the Third Intermediate Period to the Roman Period (c. 1086 BC to 300 AD).

This would fit in with data that we do know – later usage of bitumen in funerary rites/embalming across Egypt, and it fits well after the required time for Moses. It’s basically rehashing the previous mummification argument. But, still, there is the paint pigment.


Hats off to Armstrong – he’s both persistent and absolutely right to do this. His source pertinently says this, however:

Given that evidence for bitumen use in Egypt in the New Kingdom has previously been limited to a few individual samples from objects with poor provenance…

This is crucial to everything that has gone before. Since he lauds this source, it is interesting to note that these lines above basically counter all his previous claims. I was wondering whether he would now admit that, in lauding this source, he was, indeed, wrong about all his other claims. He can’t both keep his cake and eat it too. It doesn’t work like that.

Does this save him, as a source? Well, I would agree that it does render his previous claims even more dodgy as said above, but it doesn’t get him out of jail, either. This is not where we want it, and it is not being used to make, you know, pitch, a waterproof sealant.

Pitch was used big-time in Mesopotamia to make reed boats and as a waterproof caulk. That was one of their things. They were famous for it, archaeologically speaking. And this is where the best evidence points that the myth came from. And it wasn’t a thing in EgyptThere is no evidence in Egypt for such caulking practices at this time. It was later used by Egyptians in mummification, but there is still no evidence it was used for waterproofing in Egypt.

And I’m pretty sure it has never been used to waterproof a small basket to send your baby off into crocodile-infested waters.

And, yes, it might well have been used to make very special paint pigment in Nubia at the time. Does this affect my probability? I have never denied bitumen is used elsewhere. I mean, that’s literally my argument. It was used in other places but not on the banks of the Egyptian Nile for caulking baskets. At least, we have absolutely no evidence of this. Now. you could argue that it might have been because bitumen was being used elsewhere, and there is some sketchy evidence of it being traded in raw material form (not processed for particular uses).

And this evidence presented does fit into this. It is “likely” evidence of trade coming through Egypt to Nubia. But this is still not even tool usage. This is for coffin paint, paint and other funerary uses. The hope for Armstrong is that this could show that bitumen might have been used in paint pigments in Egypt too – we just haven’t tested. Mayhap. That’s his best hope from this – that bitumen was used for paint pigments in the Egyptian Nile area at the time Moses’ basket was supposed to have been caulked and sent packing. But we really want waterproofing evidence anyway.

Maybe it shifts my percentages a little in Armstrong’s favour? Perhaps, intuitively on the availability of pitch to be used in making a caulked basket goes from my previous 12% to, I don’t know, 14%? 15%? But I’m not even sure it does that, especially when you add it up cumulatively with all the rest: It looks like it comes from the Sumerian myth (where pitch was famously used for waterproofing), the story is ridiculous and overtly mythical, and arguably makes no sense at all. In this context, Armstrong’s arguments really need to shift probabilities by a lot more.

Look, it’s an ancillary argument at best, and this has been a useful enterprise, even if you guys are bored pitchless by now. But I don’t think Armstrong is as robust with his sources as he thinks. This has been shown time and again when reading them.


Just a word on insults. I disagree with other people at this blog – Luke Breuer and Verbose Stoic to name two – and we keep it civil. I have been pretty acerbic with Armstrong, who says things like this:

Yes, you tried to act as if you had never made the [] statement of a universal negative about pitch in Egypt, so you wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of your fan club. All I had to do to refute that from the beginning of this, was show any evidence at all of pitch in Egypt during Moses (which wasn’t hard to do). Then it became more technical, with you demanding proofs of caulking, etc.

But your original point that I responded to has been decisively refuted. An open-minded thinker would have conceded or retracted and admitted that he was wrong in his initial comment (which would also entail changing several of your articles to reflect that). And you have done none of those things. Instead, you upped your rhetoric and accusations again me as “disingenuous”, anti-science, etc.

The more insults you throw out are yet more proof of your overall shaky case.

Just a soupcon from his recent article at me:

Atheist anti-theist polemicist Jonathan MS Pearce wrote in his screed…

As long as Pearce keeps lying about the Bible, I will keep exposing it. His choice. He can continue to embarrass himself and the atheist community if he likes. I don’t see what reward he gets out of that: as long as the lies continue to be exposed for what they are…. I have a big problem with intellectual dishonesty (upon correction) and intransigent refusal to retract statements that have been proven to be false.

Just, you know, money where your mouth is and all that. All my articles are there for him to see. And I have not redacted any of them. You know, like he did. I stand by my original statement: pitch was an anachronism. That was the entirety of my statement in that first article. As Armstorng knows from my epistemological articles and chapters I have written, everything past cogito ergo sum is a probability. That pitch is an anachronism is a probability. We have now looked at a whole bunch of extra data has rightfully provided and I have changed my probabilities on that by a small amount, all of which I said in my articles. I am not being dishonest in any way. Can he say the same?

I have not retracted the statement because, for me, this would need to get over a 50% probability to do that. We’re still sub-20, but I have moved. I really can’t get any more honest than this. I don’t know what he expects of me. Mass on Sunday morning?

And he should stop demanding I read his articles. I am not his lapdog. I spend enough time reading his own sources that he can’t be bothered to read. I would read all of his articles if he continually showed them to be of the highest quality. But…

You know, I’ve enjoyed doing this. My original statement hasn’t changed: it’s an anachronism – I still think it is. But I have changed my percentages and do accept that there is some scant evidence of trade, and people around Egypt were using bitumen for painting stuff.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...