Amber Myths & History
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
By no means definitive, hundreds of books have been written about every aspect of amber you can think of!
Here we touch briefly upon ancient beliefs about amber, once named elektron by the Greeks. Elektron is the root of our English word, electricity.
Amber has fascinated humans for thousands of years.
"Thousands of years ago people were fascinated by the extraordinary, inexplicable properties of the golden pebbles found on beaches and in coastal forests. The stone burnt when cast into the fire, exuding a pleasant resinous smell and aromatic smoke, and, when rubbed, attracted various small light items towards itself as if by magic.
The stone interior would often hide small undamaged plants and insects, which must also have found their way inside by magic. That sufficed to arouse the curiosity of primitive man, with admiration & respect for this unusual gem. It is no wonder man started attributing magical powers to amber."
--excerpt from The Great Book of Amber by Elzbieta Mierzwinska
A Brief History of Baltic Amber
Amber stirs the soul, delights the eye, warms the heart and excites the world's scientific imagination. Amber, an organic plastic, has the unique & singular ability to encompass and preserve the organic materials it encounters, like the the proverbial fly trapped in honey. Baltic amber is approximately 40-60 million years old and was held dear by many ancient cultures, treasured both for protective & decorative qualities. In modern western times, the movie Jurassic Park caused a surge of popular interest in this gemstone. However, amber has long commanded the hearts and minds of humans--in fact, it has commanded whole economies.
Inside the plant material and insects, it has encapsulated, strands of DNA--life's basic code--are also captured. This is why amber is often referred to as a "Window to the Past."
Common inclusions are plant materials such as oak leaf remnants or tiny hairs from oak buds, pollens, spores, leaves, twigs and most famously of all- insects. At least 214 plant species have been identified through morphological analysis of amber. The scientific study of amber has yielded a bounty of priceless data about the ancient world which but for the golden fist of amber's preservation would have been lost to the ages.
Picture of an amber map made out of amber. On display at the Kaliningrad Amber Combine, Russia
The Amber Road
The ancient amber trade routes brought faraway nations into contact with one another and served as a communications and trade hub. As a luxury item found only in a few widely dispersed areas, amber was one of the few products deemed worthy of transporting such long and arduous distances. From the Baltic Sea, down the Elbe River, and on to the Danube, one can trace the ancient amber trade routes.
Amber was one of the first commercial products and has been traded for centuries. It has been found in the form of pendants dating from the Paleolithic Era (c. 12,000 B.C.). Evidence of amber jewelers' workshops has been discovered by archeologists tied to the Neolithic period. It is during this time that caches of amber are also found embedded beneath the foundations of houses- possibly intended to ensure the good fortune of the occupants.
The ancient Amber Way led first from the North by water, from Jutland down the Elbe, from Western Pomerania down the Oder, to Bohemia, through Pomerania down the Vistula, and from the Samland Peninsula to the Black Sea Coast. Then, overland, through the Brenner Pass into Italy, the heart of the Roman Empire.
During the 1st-4th Centuries BC, it was the Celts who re-established what would have been even to them, much more ancient trade roads previously dominated by others, including the Phoenicians. Amber artefacts from various periods have been found in Mycenae shaft graves (Greece) as well as finds in Babylonia and Egypt (Tutenkhamen's tomb) & even in Brighton (UK) where a particularly famous amber cup from a burial mound is housed.
But in the 1st century AD, Rome was next in line to become the undisputed center of the amber industry.
The Romans used amber in a number of different objects, including coinage. They apparently valued amber even more than the fair-haired Baltic slaves, the harvesters of amber, whom often were taken back to Rome as well. Amber has been mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey, and It has been written by Pliny the Elder that the price of a small single piece of amber sculpture was worth more than a healthy slave.
We learn from the Great Book of Amber that in the time of Nero, an expedition was sent by Julianus to the Baltic Coast to procure amber. It was brought back in such abundance that the ' "stage set" for the fight [gladitorial] w[ere] based exclusively on amber. Even the ' "mesh" ' used for restraining wild animals and covering the podium had a piece of amber in every knot.' " --Pliny, Natrualis historia, XXXVII*
The Dark Ages descended, and a period of great social unrest and migration began. By the 1100s, Gdansk served as the main center of amber production. The introduction of Christianity resulted in the popularization of the cross as an amber motif.
After the Teutonic Knights returned from the Crusades, in the latter part of 1200 A.D., they became absolute rulers of Prussia and the Baltic sources of amber, as well as the manufacture of amber objects--mostly religious objects such as Paternoster beads (Christian rosaries). The Knights ruled with an unyielding fist. Anyone caught with a piece of amber that was not part of a rosary was subject to severe punishment and, often, hanging. Art prints (lithographs) from that time commonly depict amber fisherman portrayed along with gallows, a grim warning to all who would appropriate amber for themselves.
On my first trip thru Poland, I viewed the Marlbork Castle (one of the great castles of the Teutonic Knights) for the first time from a train window. I thought I was dreaming...crumbling walls, courtyards, turrets with banners flying, a moat...
I was fortunate enough to return a few years later.The amber collection in Malbork Castle has over 2,000 cataloged pieces & is eclectic--from ancient pieces made by man's early workings to contemporary work of amber artisans today.
Origins of Baltic Amber
About 45 million years ago, the territory of present central and northern Europe known as Fennoscandia was covered by a thick "amber forest" stretching from the Norwegian Coast to the Caspian Sea before the landmass separated into what we know as present day Europe.
Amber is not, as is commonly thought, pine sap, but rather amber is the vascular tisssue of the trees, exuded either during either injury or radical climate change. Scholars have recently put forth three species of still growing trees as candidates.* These are:
~ Agathis (aurakaria, Australia)
~ Cedrus atlantis (cedar, Atlas Mountains, North Africa)
~ Pseudolarix wheri (larch, Canada)
Scientists at the Polish Museum of Science speculate that reddish tints found in cherry amber are the resin of deciduous trees, such as cherry and plum trees.
The collective name used for these amber-producing trees is Pinus Succinifera, and they produced an unnaturally large secretion of resin.** This resin has undergone myriad physical and chemical processes through the eons, finally resulting in amber (succinit). Amber resins were first borne out to sea on freshwater rivers from mountainous regions of the amber forest, even whole damaged trunks due to temperature fluctuation were thus carried to sea.
It is known from inclusions in amber that the sub-tropical amber forest also included the following species of trees: palm trees, cypresses, magnolias, rhododendrons, tea shrubs, oaks, maples, horse-chestnuts, mistletoe & cinnamon trees as well as various kinds of heathers, heaths, mosses, lichens and fungi. The forest must have been unimaginably beautiful--it is suggested the Pinus Succinifera trees were similar to modern day sequoias. "Succinim" is Latin for juice, also meaning sap- later it came to mean amber.
Amber is one of the few precious substances on earth we consider a gem which is not of mineral origin. Diamonds, jet (both derived from various stages of coal) and amber are the only gems of vegetative origin. The valuation of any gemstone is tied directly to its rarity. The level of succinite contained in amber determines its quality. Baltic amber contains the highest level of succinic acid, thus Baltic amber is the most highly valued form of amber.