Asphalts are present in the Dead Sea basin in three forms: (1) huge blocks, up to 100 tons in weight, composed of extremely pure (>99.99%) solid asphalt occasionally found floating on the lake, (2) veins, seepages, and cavity and fissure fillings in Lower Cretaceous to Holocene rocks, and (3) ozocerite veins on the eastern shore of the lake. Dead Sea asphalts probably have been documented over a longer period of time than any other hydrocarbon deposit—from antiquity to the 19th century. Major uses of asphalt from the Dead Sea have been as an ingredient in the embalming process, for medicinal purposes, for fumigation, and for agriculture. The first known war for control of a hydrocarbon deposit was in the Dead Sea area in 312 B.C. between the Seleucid Syrians and the Nabatean Arabs who lived around the lake.
Surface manifestations of asphalt are linked closely to tectonic activity. In the lake itself, the asphalt is associated with diapirs. During certain historic periods, tectonic and diapiric activity caused frequent liberation to the Dead Sea surface of semiliquid asphalt associated with large amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas. When the tectonic activity was attenuated, as in the 19th and 20th centuries, the rate of asphalt seepage to the bottom sediments of the Dead Sea was much slower and the asphalt solidified on the lake bottom. The release of asphalt to the surface became much more sporadic, and may have resulted in part from earthquakes. Thus, future asphalt prospecting in the Dead Sea area should be conducted along the boundaries of diapirs or their associated faults.