Have you ever heard about Silk Road? I am sure you did. And you know what? Not only silk was transferred throughout the whole Eurasian continent. Amber had its own trading routes called Amber Road.
Archaeological discoveries in different parts of the world indicate that amber was the object of much interest as early as the Stone Age, by the end of the period known as the middle Paleolithic. However, it is difficult for scientists to define what were the precise layout of the roads on which this alluring substance was transported, either as a raw material or as manufactured artifacts.
Deposits and accumulations of fossil resins, occur worldwide, but as we know, the most sought after were and still are Paleogene amber deposits (= succinite) occurring in Ukraine and in the Baltic Sea coast. To learn more about age of amber in different countries, check our post on How Old Is Amber.The most sought after are Paleogene #amber deposits occurring in Ukraine and in the Baltic Sea coast. #AmberRoad #BalticAmber Click To Tweet
Ukrainian amber was not as popular as amber from Baltic shores in ancient times. Therefore, typically, amber from the territories of Baltic Sea coast, also known as “Amber Shores“, flowed towards other social cultures in the distant countries of Southern Europe and Asia.
As we said before, the first products from amber known to humanity were produced in the Paleolithic, but only in the Neolithic (6 thousand years ago), amber became a subject of trade. In that times, Baltic amber was especially appreciated for its beauty and sometimes called “the gold of the North”. And indeed, it highly reflected the truth: amber was as valuable as gold. For example, Pliny the Elder mentions in his works how highly appreciated the transparent amber of red and, especially, of golden yellow color was in Ancient Rome.
Figures from such amber or amber pieces could be exchanged for a tall and strong slave. Check our previous post about ancient amber to learn more about its history and use in various ancient countries.
The Occurrence of Amber Road
Typically, when talking about Amber Road people tend to mean an ancient trade route for the transfer of amber from coastal areas of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. Contrary to the popular belief, following, is not the only way amber was traded. We know for sure that amber was as well transferred and traded in various Asian countries.
How does the amber road appeared? There is a vast historical evidence suggesting that after the glaciers recessed, populations arriving from southwestern Europe, from the circle of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea circle, the Asian-western circle and others, began to settle along the Baltic shores. They brought forward the benefits of civilization and the knowledge of safe routes in trading with their native cultural societies to local populations. Afterwards, amber trade was spread around the whole Eurasian continent.
Prehistoric trade routes between Northern and Southern Europe were defined by the amber trade. As an important commodity, amber was transported from the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts overland by way of the Vistula and Dnieper rivers to Italy, Greece, the Black Sea, Syria and Egypt over a period of thousands of years.
At the beginning of our era, in Rome, amber became so fashionable that it is customary to talk about the then-dominant “amber fashion”. It was worn as beads by all layers of the population. Romans used amber to adorn their beds, to make small pieces of vessels, busts, figures and even balls, which were used in summer to cool hands. In antiquity, amber was prized above precious stones and metals and was particularly popular in the Mediterranean countries.
As amber was extracted mostly on the coast of the Baltic Sea, it is not surprising that this sea attracted to its shores the merchants of ancient Phoenicia, Greece and Rome, as a magnet.
Amber Road Existence Evidence
[An amber necklace from Archaic Greece, 600-480 B.C. Potidaea, ancient Macedon. British Museum, London]
The ties of the countries of the Mediterranean and the Black Seas with the countries of North-Western Europe date back to the Bronze Age (1750-1600 – 500 BC). Archaeological findings of amber, jewelry, weapons, tools, coins of two thousand years old allowed to trace the actual Amber Road.
Among the most valuable findings we can name:
- The breast ornament of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen (ca. 1333–1324 BC) contains large Baltic amber beads.
- Products and jewelry from amber were found during excavations on the island of Crete, in the mine tombs of Mycenaean culture, built around 1600 – 800 BC. Unfortunately, in Ancient Greece, amber was in vogue only during a relatively short period of close trade ties with the North. Therefore, it does not occur in the Greek graves of classical time.
- The quantity of amber in the Royal Tomb of Qatna, Syria, is unparalleled for known second millennium BC sites in the Levant and the Ancient Near East.
- Amber was sent from the North Sea to the temple of Apollo at Delphi as an offering.
- Homer in the Odyssey (VIII century BC) mentions a Phoenician merchant who traded “a gold necklace in an amber frame” and etc.
The imported character of amber in the Mediterranean is confirmed by the data of its elemental composition. It turned out that the Baltic amber contains from 3 to 8% of succinic acid, whereas in amber from the regions of Sicily, Italy and Spain, the amount of this acid does not exceed 1%. To learn more about succinic acid and its influence onto the human’s body check our previous post.
Continental Amber Road
For a long time it remained unknown how the trade relations between the countries were realized (sea or river). However, nowadays we know clearly that amber was transported by means of river communications connecting Baltic Sea with Black and Mediterranean.
It is likely that the “Amber Shores” and Southern Europe towards central Danube and the Black Sea communicated by stages with each other on waterways such as Elbe, Oder, Vistula, Bug, Pregolya, Neman, Dwina/Daugava, Volga, Dnieper, Dniester, Boh and their tributaries of these rivers.
Currently, there are around few main continental routes for amber trade that can be clearly described.
One of the most famous descriptions of continental amber road comes from the Roman historian – Pliny the Elder. In Roman times, a main route ran south from the Baltic coast through the land of the Boii (modern Czech Republic and Slovakia) to the head of the Adriatic Sea (modern Gulf of Venice).
At the beginning of Nero’s reign, demand for amber was so great that to a obtain a supply for gladiatorial exhibitions, a Roman knight, Pytheas, was sent to the north in search of actual source. Some historians believe it to be one of the most significant historical events of the Roman era because it opened trade with Baltic cultures.
Pliny describes the knight’s influence on the use of amber in Rome after his succesful expedition:
The knight traversed both the trade route and the coasts, and brought back so plentiful a supply that the nets used for keeping the beasts away from the parapet of the amphitheater were knotted with pieces of amber.
In all, about 13,000 pounds of amber were brought back as a gift to Nero from German kin. Nero not only adorned the circus with amber, but made it available to gladiators to wear as amulets or charms on their breasts to assure their victory. One gladiator’s amulet of amber was found with the words “We will conquer” carved on it.
The trade in amber, like any commodity, had periods of recovery and recession. So, in the IV century BC for a number of reasons, one of which was the expansion of the militant Celts, the trading ties of the Roman Empire with the Baltic countries were interrupted and resumed only in the I – II centuries AC. Amber at that time in Rome again came into fashion. However, at the end of the II century AC, because of the wars of the Romans, the trade routes of amber again declined sharply and have never reached their former heyday.
Based on the similarity between the amber found in Britain and the tombs of Mycenae, the researchers concluded that some of the amber was sent to Britain from the main trade route. Some of the amber, which was exported from Gdansk as part of trade caravans, crossed the Cuban, the Tigris along the Vistula, the Bug, the Pripyat, the Dniester and the Don. Hence, amber entered the markets of the Middle East, mainly in Persia.
[Necklace, Italic, 550–400 B.C. Amber and gold. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum]
Another route passed along the Vistula, Sanu, Dniester and ended at the Black Sea, where amber came to the markets of Egypt, Greece and Southern Italy.
The fourth way, about 400 km long, came from the Baltic along the Neman river, then the caravans were transported to the tributaries of the Dnieper, and further along almost 600 km the amber sailed down the Dnieper to the sea. It was “long-suffering and terrible”, as historians called it. Along the river arteries, amber penetrated the Urals Mountains, in the Kama region and beyond. Beads made from Baltic amber were repeatedly found in burial grounds on Kama and in a number of Mongolian burials.
Baltic amber was sold at the markets of Veliky Novgorod (Russia) and other cities. The Russians not only traded amber, but also processed it. The remains of the workshops of amber products were discovered during excavations of the old Ryazan. Recently in Novgorod, during excavations on the ancient Lubianicka Street, amber found, testify to the presence of trade ties between Novgorodians and the Baltic states.
From the Black Sea region, trade could continue to Asia along the Silk Road, another ancient trade route.
Sea Amber Road
[Pendant: Ship with Figures. Etruscan, 600-575 B.C. J. Paul Getty Museum]
In addition to the mainland, there was a few sea routes and we are going to tell you about one of the most fascinating.
In the middle of the IV century BC one of the most remarkable journeys of antiquity was undertaken – the voyage of Pytheas of Massalia (modern Marseilles) to the northern shores of the Atlantic.
As already mentioned, the Greeks used to be content only with legendary information about Eridan river, near the mouth of which amber was found. Pytheas’ swimming brought clarity to this question. Diodorus and Pliny, from the words of Pytheas, write about the shores and islands near Gallia Celtica (modern France), where local residents collected amber in large quantities.
According to The Natural History by Pliny the Elder:
Pytheas says that the Gutones, a people of Germany, inhabit the shores of an estuary of the Ocean called Mentonomon, their territory extending a distance of six thousand stadia. That, at one day’s sail from this territory, is the Isle of Abalus, upon the shores of which, amber is thrown up by the waves in spring, it being an excretion of the sea in a concrete form. As, also, that the inhabitants use this amber by way of fuel, and sell it to their neighbors, the Teutones.
The Atlantic Ocean, reached by Pytheas on two 50-ponder ships with a high stern, was unknown and full of mystery. The sea was stormy, foggy and cold, and in the north it was even covered with ice. Many peoples with whom Pytheas was to meet, enjoyed the bad reputation of savages.
Thus, Pytheas gave the first, though brief description of the area of amber deposits in the Baltic States. There is a lot of fictional here, which cast doubt on the very journey. It is possible that Pytheas in his own interests tried to confuse those who decided to undertake such a trip after him. However, Pytheas’ exaggeration of the danger of his trip to the land of amber rather heated interest in these lands.
Tourist Amber Road
Amber gave name to the most important North-South connection of Central Europe. The ancient trade route coalesces countries and nations between the Baltic and the Mediterranean Sea. Travelling along the Amber Road is discovering European history and culture.
Museums, archaeological sites, monumental castles, splendid palaces and historic cities are linked through this route. From St. Petersburg, capital of the Russian Tsars, to the outskirts of Venice, the Amber Road connects some of the most attractive tourism destinations of Europe. The tourist route is stretching along the Baltic coast from Kaliningrad to Latvia.The tourist amber route is stretching along the Baltic coast from Kaliningrad to Latvia. #AmberRoad #Amber Click To Tweet
“Amber Road” objects are:
- Mizgiris Amber Gallery-Museum in Nida;
- Amber Bay in Juodkrante;
- Lithuania Minor History Museum;
- Amber collection place in Karkle, Lithuania;Amber Museum in Palanga;
- Open amber workshop in Palanga;
- Amber museum in Gdańsk;
- Samogitian Alka in Sventoji.
Ungrateful fame went for amber along the old “amber roads”. These were the roads of wars and robberies, tears and misfortunes. In our time, amber contributes to the development of good-neighborly relations between peoples. If you want to obtain yourself a true piece of Baltic amber, like ancient people did throughout ages, check Nammu amber collection – Best 100% Natural Amber Jewelry on the market.
References: Amber Road (Wikipeadia), The Natural History (Wikipedia), Trade Routes of Amber (Kaliningrad Regional amber Museum), Amber Collection (The J. Paul Getty Museum).