In the British Isles, Whitby Jet, arguably the best quality gem hydrocarbon in the world, first appears in the Early Neolithic. Almost certainly utilised for shamanic ritual, the unique gemmological properties exhibited by members of the jet group make it quite literally a ‘magic’ material. Despite this illustrious history, very little geological research has been carried out on these culturally important materials, and myth and folk law tend to prevail, rather than hard geological facts. Adding to the problem, a confusion in the nomenclature of gem hydrocarbons has given rise to a situation in which multiple structurally and chemically unrelated materials are often, from an archaeological perspective, termed ‘jet’, or even worse a ‘jet-like material’. Ever since Thurman (1871) noted that artefacts from the range of black materials are indistinguishable to the naked eye when carved and polished, archaeologists have been interested in methods of identifying the various materials in order to be able to discover the sources of those materials, and the different properties inherent in those materials.

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” ― Edmund Burke

Given it’s illustrious history, it comes as no surprise therefore that jet has a rich association with folk-law and legend. The Greek philosophers begin debating materials which behave oddly in relation to combustion in the early C4th BC. By the C1st AD Pliny the Elder gives us the first scientific description of jet. Referring to it by its Latin name “gagate” Pliny tells us that there is a rich source of the material in the area of the River Gages in Lycia (modern Turkey).

Pliny goes on to say ‘It is black, smooth, light, and porous, differs but little from wood in appearance, is of a brittle nature. When burnt, it gives out a sulphurous smell; and it is a singular fact, that the application of water ignites it, while that of oil quenches it. The fumes of it, burnt, keep serpents at a distance.    

The association of jet with serpents endures to this day and across all jet working cultures.

Jet has inspired some of history’s greatest minds to write poetry and prose. The following verse was written in C4th A.D. and attributed to Orpheus:

when Jet in rising clouds consumes,

The nose provoking with its pungent fumes.

Black as a coal, but yet of lustrous shine,

It blazes up like a torch of driest pine

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