Pioneer Map Charted Anticlinal Structures

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

At first glance the structural contour map and the cross section shown here look as if they had been published in the late 1920s by AAPG in the “Structure of Typical American Oil Fields” memoir.

But look closer: These maps are much older – they were prepared and published in Japan in the 1880s, long before the petroleum mining industry started to hire geologists and also before Israel C. White proposed the anticlinal theory.

The authors of those maps and cross section were the American geologist Benjamin Smith Lyman (1835-1920) and his 13 young Japanese colleagues.

At the request of the India government in 1870, Lyman worked for a year as a pioneer field geologist for petroleum mining in the Punjab district, and published a map that probably is the first structural contour map in the world (after E.W. Owen, 1975).

In 1872, immediately after his return from India, Lyman received an invitation from the Japanese government to work for three years in Japan as a geologist surveying coal and oil deposits of the island of Hokkaido.

His first task upon arriving in Japan the following January, before starting survey work, was to select appropriate assistants. The assistants he selected were 13 brilliant Japanese students from a new school established by the Japanese government, and Lyman began by training them extensively in the basics of geology and surveying.

A few months later Lyman and the students departed to begin a field survey in the Hokkaido region in the undeveloped northernmost portion of the Japanese Islands.

During the job and training, the students learned how to use the transit, prismatic compass and barometer, which Lyman had brought from the United States. In their spare time he taught them physics, mathematics and chemistry.

After he completed three years of survey work in the Hokkaido region, Lyman agreed to extend the contract with the Japanese government for an additional three years. On this occasion they studied main island areas, where oil was being produced from hand-dug wells near oil seepages along the western coast of Japan.

They also drew topographic maps at 1/6,000 scale, on which they described the results of their geological survey. Until then such highly precise maps had not been available in Japan.

Map Publication

When his contract expired in July of 1879, Lyman decided to remain in Japan until he could prepare an initial draft of his reports and maps.

After submitting his reports to the Japanese government, Lyman bade farewell to his Japanese disciples and friends and left Japan in December 1880. He arrived at his hometown, Northampton, Mass., May 19, 1881, via Singapore, Calcutta and Paris.

In February 1882, Teiichi Kada, one of Lyman’s Japanese disciples, visited his former teacher with their completed geological contour maps. For this long trip to Massachusetts, Kada gave up his position at the Department of Engineering of Japan.

Though the oil field maps were refined with Lyman’s guidance by the summer, Lyman was aware the Japanese government had no budget to publish their maps. He printed 200 sheets of those maps at his expense and let Kada take them back to Japan. (The figure on page 28 is part of those heartfelt maps.)

The maps show beautiful anticlinal structures drawn at 100 Japanese shaku (approximately 100 feet) contour intervals superimposed on the topographic maps at 10 shaku contour intervals. This method of expression is almost the same as the prospect maps we make today.

It is amazing that such maps were published five years prior to I.C. White’s “Anticlinal Theory;” those oil field structural maps were probably the second most important work of Lyman after his assignment in the Punjab district in India, and are some of the oldest subsurface structural contour maps in the world.

They were the fruit of Lyman’s and his disciples’ ardor, commitment and strong sense of responsibility.

The Anticlinal Theory

After Lyman’s departure from Japan, most of his disciples held positions in the coal mining industry and continued to apply the subsurface contouring methodology they had learned with Lyman in their coal work. Several years passed, and nobody took any notice of Lyman’s oil field maps.

In 1888 an oil corporation was established in Japan, and that company acquired a petroleum lease at offshore Amase area in Niigata Prefecture (approximately 250 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, along the Sea of Japan coast). A wildcat was drilled in 1890 from an artificial island built on an oil-seeped inter-tidal zone using a cable tool rig imported from the United States.

This first well was successfully completed and confirmed oil production in the Amase oil field.

This tale of success is the origin for Nippon Oil, the first Japanese petroleum company.

Unfortunately, the still-primitive Japanese petroleum industry hired few of Lyman’s disciples, who might have led basic methodology for petroleum exploration. This means that Nippon Oil’s success had not been done directly using Lyman team’s advanced techniques.

However, we recognize that the luckily successful wildcat was located on the axis of the anticline on Lyman’s contour map – and unexpectedly proved the anticlinal theory.

Nevertheless, Lyman criticized the anticlinal theory all in his life. Perhaps he was strongly affected by J.P. Lesly, who not only was Lyman’s uncle but also his teacher. Lyman wrote to Eijiro Sagawa, a Japanese geologist who visited him in 1911:

“It appears evident that the anticlinal theory is yet very far from having become thoroughly established as the simple and principal guide of the position of the oil pools.”

However, Lyman’s petroleum exploration methodology, which incorporates surface and subsurface structural elements, is still widely applied.

Today a tiny and forsaken petroleum memorial is all that rests on the location of the Amase discovery, Japan’s first oil-producing area.

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