The pitch for Noah’s Ark
by Tas B. Walker, B.E., Ph.D.
Many geologists claim that Noah could not possibly have built the ark in the manner described in Genesis. They argue that pitch could not have been used to cover the ark and make it waterproof. Pitch, they claim, is derived from oil or coal, and if coal did not form until during the time of Noah’s Flood, he could not possibly have covered the ark with pitch.
For those who are not geologists, pitch is a black glue-like substance left behind when coal tar is heated or distilled. It belongs to the same family of substances as asphalt or bitumen. Today, it is largely produced by heating coal. Most modern geologists know of no other source for it. But coal tar and petroleum are not the only source for pitch. Anyone who takes the time to consult a reasonable dictionary of geology will find that pitch can be extracted by distilling or heating wood. In fact, prior to the rise of the petroleum and coal industries, this was exactly how pitch was made.
For at least one thousand years, the pitch-making industry in Europe flourished. It was the pitch from this industry which assisted in the construction of those great wooden sailing ships which figured so prominently in European history. Pitch making was a skilled trade, and many European surnames bear testimony to that fact today. In Polish, the word for pitch or tar is ‘smola’. Any Polish telephone directory displays names such as Smola, Smolander, Smolen, Smolenski and Smolarz. These surnames simply mean ‘the man who makes pitch’.
Likewise in Germany, the word for pitch is ‘Teer’, and it appears in names such as Teer and Teerman. Even the English have families whose name is Pitcher, Tarrier or Tarmen, to mention but a few. These all indicate that the trade of manufacturing pitch was extremely common throughout Europe.
So how did they make pitch before the growth of the petroleum and coal industries? Their first step was to obtain resin from the pine trees which at that time grew in dense forests throughout Europe. A herringbone pattern of cuts was gouged into the tree trunk and as the resin ran down the grooves it was collected in a pot at the base of the tree. Pine resin is still collected in this way in Poland, the Ukraine, Russia, Finland and other European countries where pine forests are still to be found.
When the resin had finished flowing, the trees were chopped down, covered in soil or ash, and burned slowly to produce a lightweight black pure form of carbon called charcoal. The last step in the process of making pitch was to add the powdered charcoal to the boiling pine resins. Different proportions of charcoal would produce pitch of different properties. It was this pitch which was used to waterproof the large ocean-going wooden ships. In my opinion it is no coincidence that pitch today can be extracted from coal much of which in Australia shows evidence of having been formed from pine tree debris.
Now while I cannot say for sure that Noah obtained pitch for the ark exactly in this fashion, it does illustrate that you don’t have to be able to extract either oil or coal from the ground in order to make pitch. Anyone who had cut down as many trees as Noah and his helpers for the manufacture of an ocean-going ark would certainly have found out about tree resins. If Europeans had a well known and widely used method of making pitch before the discovery of petroleum, obviously Noah could also have had the same satisfactory way of waterproofing the ark with its covering of pitch.