“Probably none of the precious stones has so much indications for medical applications as amber. Even in ancient times amber was declared almost a panacea for all diseases”.
Amber is a fossilized tree resin (not sap), which has been appreciated for its color and natural beauty since Paleolithic times. Much valued from antiquity to the present as a gemstone, amber is made into a variety of decorative objects. Amber is used as an ingredient in perfumes, as a healing agent in folk medicine, and as jewelry.
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Ancient Amber in Europe
[Female Holding a Child (Kourotrophos), Etruscan, 600-550 B.C. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum]
It is not known exactly when Baltic amber was first used, but prehistoric amber artifacts found in the Baltic region provide evidence that ancient ancestors of present-day Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles, and others living along the Baltic coasts were familiar with amber. It is, however, known that early Stone Age people living near Baltic shores were aware of the beauty of this material and prized it highly.
The oldest piece of carved amber, an amulet, was found near Hanover, Germany and was about 30,000 years old. Thousands of archaeological data from central Europe have shown that prehistoric people used amber for personal ornament and religious rituals. Archaeological excavations have found amber in the centre of vessels dated around 3000B.C. in the present Lithuania.
Amber’s novelty of appearance, its shining hustler, and its colors made it a treasure so rare that early chieftains took amber with them to their graves, perhaps in the belief that objects buried with them could be used in another world.
Such amber hoards provide us with a means of piercing together the story of early barter and the development of trade routes along which amber and other commodities passed from tribe to tribe and from country to country.
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[laque: Addorsed Lions’ Heads with Boar in Relief. Etruscan, 500-480 B.C. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum]
The biggest discovery was made in the 1980s, a few kilometres east of Gdansk, Poland, where a large number of amber artists had worked between 2100B.C and 1700 B.C. More than 30,000 crafted amber pieces were identified. It is believed that there was about 900 independent amber shops in half a kilometre square.
Northern Europe had other raw materials to trade with people in distant southern lands, but amber was one of the most valued. And, fortunately, amber was imperishable enough to leave a record of its trade.For some ancient tribes #amber acted as money. #AmberHistory Click To Tweet
Trade probably took place in a number of stages through trading intermediaries. The glass and bronze ornaments were probably exchanged for amber, indicating that amber was reaching highly civilized cultures as far away as Italy and Greek colonies along the Black Sea.
Ancient Amber in Assyria
[Pendant: Divinity Holding Hares. Etruscan, 600-550 B.C. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum]
Some historians believe amber was known to Assyrians even in the days of Ninevah (ca. 2000 B.C.). A broken obelisk in the form of tapered four-sided shaft of stone inscribed with Assyrian cuneiform was found in the nineteenth century. The cuneiform was translated in about 1826 by a noted Assyriologist, who believed the inscription indicated the early existence of commerce between northern Europe and Assyria.
In the sea of changeable winds, [indicating the Persian Gulf]
His merchants fished for pearls;
In the sea where the North Star culminates [indicating the Baltic Sea]
They fish for yellow amber.
Ancient Amber in Phoenicia
[Pendant: Ship with Figures. Etruscan, 600-575 B.C. J. Paul Getty Museum]
Sun worship was widespread, if not universal, during ancient times. Therefore, amber which was more sunlike than any other gem in nature, excited the admiration of sun-worshiping people. Thus, it was a valued commodity for trade.
Ancient Phoenicians, a hardly seafaring and commercial race, were probably the first sailors to trade amber among the Mediterranean countries, as well as to pioneer sea routes to the Atlantic shores between the thirteenth and sixth centuries B.C. However, amber was probably traded to Phoenicians through middlemen with little knowledge of its place of origin.
The Phoenicians were clever traders and went to great lengths to protect their trade secrets. To obscure their sources of foreign goods they fabricated tales of sea monsters and other dangers encounters on their sea voyages.
[Pendant: Ram’s Head. Etruscan, 525-480 B.C. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum]
When Phoenicians learned that amber was gathered from the sea, the were determined to keep secret for themselves. When their fleets returned, many tales were told of perils to the north, of lodestone that would draw ships down the bottom of the ocean, of witches who enchanted men by turning them into beasts, or terrible serpents and awesome monsters.
The Roman historian Tacitus reports that Amber was brought “out of the German’s country”. It was traded by Phoenician merchants, calling it Sahale (“resin drops”).
Amber stone with congealed insects had a special commercial value. At the beginning of a new era, Phoenician merchants were paying 120 swords and 60 daggers for amber containing a fly.
Ancient Amber in Egypt
[A finger ring made from amber. Egypt, New Kingdom Period. British Museum, London]
Following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, which brought to light some objects containing elements made of a brown brittle material, as well as a quantity of powdered red substance of resinous character, it was postulated that the ancient Egyptians knew real amber. Although, amber is a rare find in ancient Egypt, still amber beaded jewellery and rings have been found in several tombs there.
Egyptians greatly respected this stone, considered it a reservoir of solar energy and believed:
Amber could be the fresh fruit of the attention of Ra (God of Sun). The Gods live in its sweet scent; and it is color is much like Gold.
In Egypt, Amber ended up being worked together with gold into high priced necklaces. The breast ornament of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, died 1352 BC, had been solid silver and included large amber falls.
[Necklace with a Pendant Scarab, Italic or Etruscan, 550–400 B.C. Amber, gold, and carnelian. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum]
In a tomb inscription during the time of Thutmose III (about 1500 BC), an inscription informs us:
An embassy through the Haunebu (North Sea individuals), from the Northern lands by the end of the world, brought with them 8943 pounds of Amber!
Already mysterious because nobody was quite sure where it actually came from, many ancient peoples regarded amber as a somewhat mystical material capable of protecting the wearer in some way. The use of amulets for just such a purpose was especially common in ancient Egypt and Greece, so to make the object (which could be almost anything from miniature representations of gods to body parts) doubly powerful, amber was a good choice.
Ancient Amber in Greece
[Pendant: Lion’s Head. Etruscan, 550-500 B.C. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum]
In pre-Greek cultures, amber played an important role as a luxury and treasure of the educated and ruling classes. Amber beads, pendants, amulets, and hairpins with amber finials were found in tombs of the Mycenaean king of Crete. An enormous quantity of flattened spherical amber beads was found among a treasure of golded ornaments in the Mycenaean acropolis, providing evidence that amber was considered a magnificent substance.
[An amber necklace from Archaic Greece, 600-480 B.C. Potidaea, ancient Macedon. British Museum, London]
Despite continual invasions by barbarian tribes, amber still remained an important commodity in Greek trade from Greek cultures onward. Homer, in his Odyssey (1000 B.C.), portrayed a “cunning trader” enticing female servants to his ship by dangling amber beads before their eyes. In another section, Homer describes echoing halls “gleaming with amber”. According to the Odyssey, among the jewels offered to the queen of Syria by Phoenician traders was “a golden necklace hung with pieces of amber”. In describing his adventures in Syria, the character Emmaneus remarks:
Thirther came the Phoenicians, mariners, renowned, greedy merchant men, with all manner of goods, in their black ship […] there came a man, versed in craft, to my father’s house, with a gold chain strung here and there with amber beads, and the maidens in the hall and my lady mother handled the chain and gazed on it, offering him their price.
The sunlike color of amber was of special significance to the Greeks. Homer, for example, described Penelope’s necklace as “golden, set with amber, like the radiant sun”. Therefore, among the Greeks, amber was desired mainly for its decorative qualities. Accodingly, it was used in inlays tohether with ivory. In jewelry, it was used as parts of necklaces and also in pins or fibulae. The latter were either made of bronze or gold.
[Necklace, Italic, 550–400 B.C. Amber and gold. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum]
From Greece, the use of amber spread to other mediterranean countries. Baltic amber products were found in Pharaoh Tutankhamun tomb about 1400 B.C and in Mesopotamia about 900 B.C.
The remarkable property of amber attracting small bits of lint, pith, or other light objects after it had been vigorously rubbed was first discovered among the Greeks by the philosopher, Thales, about 600 B.C. Check our What Is Amber post, to leran more about this particular and other amber properties. Since the Greek word for amber was “elektron”, meaning literally “born from the sun“, it was from this early discovery of the curious attractive properties of amber our modern world electron and it derivatives come.
[Greek gold necklace with amber beads. c. 6th-4th Century B.C.]
The source of amber, however, was shrouded in mystery, and a popular legend proposed that amber was hardened teardrops of the Heliades. Check our upcoming posts, to learn about the Legend of Phaeton.
Ancient Greeks considered amber as a stone that brings happiness. Greeks gave amber stone as a wish of happiness. This stone was considered to be s a “victory carrier” – it gives victory in the battle, therefore most of the amber pieces found in graves are battle amulets.
[Pendant: Ram’s Head. Italic, 500-400 B.C. J. Paul Getty Museum]
Commonly found designs also were fertility amulets carved in the form of rams’ heads, cowrie shells, bulla bottle pendants, and other animal figures. Monkey figures and lions carved from amber are also found. Since this was a pre-Christian era, many of the cravings represented Greek and Roman myths and legends.
Ancient Amber in Rome
[A perfume-pot made from amber and depicting cupids and a panther. Roman, Aquileia, 100-120 A.D. British Museum, London]
For several centuries before and after the birth of Christ, inhabitants of the Baltic region did not transport amber along trade routes to the south, trading it instead to Germanic tribes, their immediate neighbors. This was due to the problems related to maintaining to the tolls levied by tribes along trade routes.
Nevertheless, both Pliny, the Elder (A. D. 23 – 79) and Tacticus (A. D. 55 – 120), Roman hostoricians, described the influence of amber during the “Golden Age of the Roman Empire”. In his Natural History, a 37-volume encyclopedia, Pliny described amber to be an object of luxury popular mostly among women, who had no real justification for its use. How rude of him to tell that! There is always a justification to wear jewelry!
Emperor Nero regarded amber so highly that he desribed his beloved Poppea’s hair as having the color of amber. Other ladies of Nero’s court dyed their hair to match the color of this gem (and perhaps the color of the hair of the emperors’ favorite). Since yellow was held in esteem as an imperial color, amber’s value increased so much that Pliny tells us:
the price of a figurine in amber, however small, exceeded that of a living slave.
[A Roman dice made from amber. 100 – 200 A.D. From Aquileia, Central Italy. British Museum, London]
Pliny describes several kinds of amber obtained from the amber-gathering tribes:
There are several kinds of amber. The white is the one that has the finest odor, but neither this nor the wax-colored amber is held in very high esteem.
The red amber is more highly valued; and still more so, when it is transparent, without presenting too brilliant and igneous an appearance. For amber to be of a high quality, should present a brightness like that of a fire, and not flakes resembling those of flame.
The most highly esteemed amber is that known as the “Falernian”, form its resemblance to the colorof Falernian wine; it is perfectly transparent, and has a softened, transparent brightness. Other kinds again, are valued for their mellow tints, like the color of boiled honey in appearance.
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, Pythias, 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.
[Pendant: Lion with Bird. Etruscan, 600-550 B.C. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum ]
Pliny describes the knight’s influence on the use of amber in Rome after his successful 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 Neron from German king. Neron 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.
After discovery of the trade road, wealthy Romans used to send their subjects to the north and to the Baltic Sea in search for amber, as it was much appreciated not only for its beauty but also for its healing and protective properties. Romans always carried amber beads that they rubbed in their hands for strength.
Every wealthy Roman had a small amber bead for the nerves resting. And in ancient Rome amber assigned a special role in the lives of families: it was believed that amber provided fertility and successful hunting.
[Pendant: Female Holding a Child (Kourotrophos) with Bird. Etruscan, 600-550 B.C. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum]
Amber was widely spreaded in the form of amulets and talismans as Christmas gifts. In addition, it was believed that amber brings victory in battle, so a large part of the ancient amber products are martial amulets.
Pliny also notes in his Natural History that some people believed amber could help with problems specifically connected to the tonsils, mouth, and throat, as well as mental disorders and bladder problems. Amber was even ground and mixed with rose oil and honey to treat eye and ear infections.
Throughout all times, amber was an indispensable adornment for brides, as it brings longevity and beauty. Today, people are trying to revive this tradition in many countries. And if you’re one of them, or simply like amber, shop with Nammu and get yourself a piece of history.
References: Amber (Patty C. Rice), Ancient Carved Ambers Collection (The J. Paul Getty Museum).