Forever Amber; from the Baltic to the Levant

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Long before regular long-distance travel was possible in central and northern Europe, close links existed in the Near East, North Africa, India and China between centres and areas of high culture. These links and contacts were mainly if not exclusively made possible by the spirit of enterprise and daring of independent merchants, and in spite of numerous military conflicts were never completely or permanently broken off. They led to exchanges of goods and ideas which in turn helped to stimulate and develop cultural exchanges, indeed to a large degree made such exchanges possible. From the middle of the third millennium onwards the use of metals (copper, bronze, iron) was accompanied by an intensification and extension of this trade, which played a decisive role in the cultural history of mankind.

In Europe, around 1800 BC, with the transition from the Neolithic (in the later stage of which copper was already being used) to the Bronze Age there was also a perceptible growth in trade. The increasing use of wheeled vehicles from the middle of the third millennium onwards played an important role in this phenomenon.

Like salt, the highly prized ores used for producing bronze and, later, iron were found, mined and worked only in certain places. Copper, bronze and iron were far more convenient to use than stone, and a demand soon arose for them and for objects made from them for domestic use, hunting, war and adornment. The intensification of trade in Europe also led to a wider and more rapid distribution of other commodities. Some of them were transported and marketed along certain routes and this led to the growth of trade-routes such as the "tin road" (see page 10) and the "salt road". One of these commodities was the petrified wood resin known as amber, which was greatly prized in ancient times and still is to some extent today.

Amber is formed when liquid resin is buried under a layer of sand or mud, and achieves a stable state. Deposits of amber have been found in various parts of Europe, Asia and America, but in western Europe the word amber was long applied only to the fossil resin found in the Baltic and North Sea regions. Similar fossil resins from twenty million to 120 million years old, have also been discovered elsewhere--in the Lebanon, Siberia, Burma, Sicily and the Dominican Republic. It mainly occurs in smallish lumps and pieces; it can be crystal clear or cloudy opaque; and because it often contains animal or vegetable matter, drops of water or air bubbles, it is of great interest to zoologists and palaeontologists. Its colour ranges from light yellow to dark brown; but it may be reddish or even blue.

The use of amber can be traced back to early historical times. In Europe it has been used for at least 10,000 years in the manufacture of ornaments, implements and utensils, works of art, for medicinal purposes (amulets) and as a perfume (when burnt). Modern compressed amber, produced from very small or waste pieces, is used as gem material or for technical purposes as an insulator. For thousands of years, long before the arrival of Europeans, Asian and American amber was worked in quarries and galleries by local craftsmen and traded over extensive areas.

It was highly prized in ancient Rome to which large quantities were brought from all parts of the Empire to be fashioned into gems and works of art. But its importance declined towards the end of this period and amber only came back into favour in the Middle Ages when it was used for making rosaries. A further revival began in the sixteenth century and in the seventeenth and eighteenth production flourished of a wide variety of art objects, made either from amber or from a combination of amber and other precious materials. Imitation amber objects made from mixtures of powdered amber, synthetics, or artificially coloured copal (a resin of recent geological origin) are also found. These imitations are still widely used in Africa, Tibet and elsewhere. …