Displayed at the Maritime Museum in solid and semi-solid form, this sticky, viscous petroleum-based substance seeps on area beaches.
Richie DeMaria

It seeps from our coastal cliffs, it bubbles up from our channel waters, and an entire civilization was built around it. It’s asphaltum, the lique­fied, black, petroleum-based substance otherwise known as tar that oozes out from ocean originates in places like the Carpinteria Tar Pits and makes for many a frustrating footfall if you’re not careful. 

Asphaltum is also the subject of a new exhibit at the S.B. Maritime Museum (SBMM), and the public is invited to a free opening reception on Thursday, April 6, 5:30-7 p.m. The following week, the museum will host Asphaltum: Chumash Super Glue, a lecture presented by Chumash Elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie and archaeologist John Foster, April 13, at 7 p.m. “Asphaltum is a substance used in almost everything the Chumash did ​— ​in decorations, in ritual objects, in clothing, to make water bottles with, and they used it for tools and things. It played a part in their everyday life,” Foster said.

Foster, vice president of Greenwood and Associates, has conducted hundreds of excavations throughout the western United States on both prehistoric and historical sites, and he continues to work for their conservation. He will lend a historical overview of the Chumash and their use of local oil seepages, along with Tumamait-Stenslie, who will share stories from the ancient Chumash tradition and how asphaltum plays into their cultural history. Tumamait-Stenslie can trace family roots to at least 11 known Chumash villages going as far north as San Luis Obispo and as far south as Malibu, as well as almost everywhere in between. She continues to serve the community as chairperson for the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians and as spiritual adviser for CSU Channel Islands.

Their talk marks the opening of a new exhibit on the Chumash use of asphaltum at SBMM, which covers a hugely significant chapter in S.B.’s maritime history. “Asphaltum was pervasive in everything the Chumash did with regard to maritime identification,” Foster said. Most importantly, the asphaltum played an indispensable role in the construction of the Chumash peoples’ revolutionary tomol canoe, which replaced an earlier, unreliable boat model made of balsa and slough reeds. “Asphaltum was a key component in basically one of the first watercraft Native Americans ever used,” he said. “They could use it to get all the way out to the islands, and by doing that, it broadened the capabilities of Chumash to feed themselves.” Their abalone fishhooks were bound to the cordage with asphaltum, and their harpoons were sewn to the staff with the same substance.

Foster is fascinated with the “commonality between prehistory and the modern world. We do the same thing with the same resource ​— ​we use tar and hydrocarbons in almost everything we do. It’s an important and pervasive aspect of our cultural identity as it was with the Chumash who were here up to 10,000-12,000 years ago,” he said. “I think the value here for us from an educational standpoint is to show people that we’re not all that different.”

There will be a free opening reception for the S.B. Maritime Museum’s new asphaltum exhibit on Thursday, April 6, 5:30-7 p.m., and Asphaltum: Chumash Super Glue takes place Thursday, April 13, 7 p.m., at the S.B. Maritime Museum (113 Harbor Wy.). Visit sbmm.org.


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