Bituminous materials such as heavy asphaltic residues from petroleum distillation or natural bitumens such as gilsonite, grahamite, etc. are distilled in presence of a carrier consisting of pieces of inert refractory material and by the heat generated by combustion of the coke which remains on the carrier after distillation. A vertical cylindrical retort, in which a wood and coal fire is first made, is charged with an inert refractory substance such as pumice stone, broken firebrick, burnt fire clay, carborundum, ash, etc. mixed with a bituminous substance, which, if fusible, may be melted and added in a rotary drum. The mixture passes downwards through the retort, first through regions in which the hydrocarbons are distilled and cracked and then through a region in which the remaining carbon is burnt by a limited supply of air and steam admitted through a grate. The inert material is discharged through a water seal and used again. Vapors, withdrawn from the retort though an outlet, pass through a heat intercharger and separator and are treated with a spray of sulfuric acid to separate ammonia in a scrubber, with water sprays to condense oil in scrubbers, and with oil in a scrubber.