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Thus, the use of petroleum and the development of related technology is not such a modern subject as we are inclined to believe. However, the petroleum industry is essentially a twentieth-century industry but to understand the evolution of the industry, it is essential to have a brief understanding of the first uses of petroleum. The Tigris–Euphrates valley, in what is now Iraq, was inhabited as early as 4000 BC by the people known as the Sumerians who established one of the first great cultures of the civilized world.

Nonhydrocarbon constituents of petroleum include organic derivatives of nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and the metals nickel and vanadium. Most of these impurities are removed during refining. Geologic techniques (Chapter 5) can determine only the existence of rock formations that are favorable for oil deposits, not whether oil is actually there. Drilling is the only sure way to ascertain the presence of oil. With modern rotary equipment, wells can be drilled to depths of more than 30,000 ft (9000 m).

On the other hand, the bust of Manishtusu, King of Kish, an early Sumerian ruler (about 2270 BC), was found in the course of excavations at Susa in Persia, and the eyes, composed of white limestone, are held in their sockets with the aid of bitumen. Fragments of a ring composed of asphalt have been unearthed above the flood layer of the Euphrates at the site of the prehistoric city of Ur in southern Babylonia, ascribed to the Sumerians of about 3500 BC. An ornament excavated from the grave of a Sumerian king at Ur consists of a statue of a ram with the head and legs carved out of wood over which gold foil was cemented with asphalt.

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