The Qatna Lion: Scientific Confirmation of Baltic Amber in Late Bronze Age Syria

Article excerpt


The cultural importance of amber is evident from the many thousands of artefacts, especially pieces of personal adornment in the form of beads and amulets, found at New and Old World archaeological sites from late Palaeolithic times onwards (Grimaldi 1996: 145-8). In Europe, Baltic amber was particularly highly prized appearing to have been transported since the Neolithic, with trade routes emerging in the Bronze Age (Bouzek 1993). The occurrence of amber in the Ancient Near East, however, is rare and often ambiguous, with the earliest putative examples taking the form of singular beads dating to the first half of the second millennium BC (Moorey 1994:79-81). The best known Egyptian pieces are the amber bead necklace and various other amber/resin jewellery items found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (Hood 1993) although, in common with the majority of such finds, they have not been chemically characterised, reflecting the challenging nature of the analysis of precious fossil resin (Anderson & Winans 1991; Beck 1986; Beck et al. 1964; Langenheim 1969; Mills & White 1994). Carved amber figurines, for which a large piece of raw material is needed, are extremely rare (cf. Beck 1979: 15).


One of the major questions relating to such finds is the origin of the amber used in their fashioning, which raises wider questions concerning interregional trade and gift exchange in antiquity. A Baltic amber source is often assumed, but Lebanese amber (Nissenbaum 1975), which is mainly Lower Cretaceous in age (c. 125 to 135 My), occurs mostly in Lebanon (275 outcrops) but also in Syria (Bloudan area), Israel (Kiryat Shmona) and Jordan (Wadi Zerqa).

The Royal Tomb at Qatna

Tell Mishrife is located 18km north-east of Horns, and is the site of the ancient city of Qatna (Figure 1), which flourished for several centuries from around 1800 BC (Al-Maqdissi et al. 2002), but was destroyed around 1340 BC by an invading Hittite army (Pfalzner 2004). Although partially excavated in the 1920s (Du Mesnil du Buisson 1935), a German, Syrian and Italian venture was initiated in 1999 to further excavate the tell (Al-Maqdissi et al. 2002). During excavations in 2002 (joint Syrian-German mission directed by Michel Al-Maqdissi and Peter Pfalzner; Al-Maqdissi et al. 2002; 2003; Pfalzner 2004; 2006) an unlooted tomb was discovered (Figure 2a). Situated beneath the Royal Palace, the tomb had remained sealed since the destruction of the city, making c. 1340 BC a terminus ante quem for the tomb and artefacts within. The contents of the burial chambers were remarkably well preserved, comprising almost 2000 finds including jewellery, bronzes, ivories, pottery and stone vessels, basalt statues, sarcophagi, human and animal bones. The range of finds and the architectural context indicate the tomb to have been in continuous use for 300-400 years as a royal burial chamber. Based on the tomb's inventory, ceremonies can be reconstructed involving 'kispum'; an ancient ritual where the dead were offered meals to maintain their positive powers for the afterlife (Al-Maqdissi et al. 2003; Pfalzner 2006). Several objects testify to the widespread exchange of raw materials, artistic ideas, techniques, and finished products in the Late Bronze Near East and Eastern Mediterranean (cf. Feldman 2006). Among the many finds were artefacts fashioned from a hard resin-like substance, including an intricately carved hollow lion head vessel (Figure 2b and 2c), an associated circular 'lid' (Figure 2b and 2e) and around 90 beads in various shapes (Figure 2f) including 45 from a triple-row gold-strung girdle (Figure 2d).

Analytical procedures

To investigate the nature of the material(s) used to fashion the objects and determine their origin, reference resins were selected as the most likely candidates: i.e. sandarac (polycommunic acid polymer), Congo copal (labdanoid polymer with enantio configuration), retinite (moderate retene amber with low succinic acid content), Prussian and Baltic ambers (from Pinites succinifera), Liquidambar orientalis (based on benzoic acid esters/styrene), Myrrh (triterpenoid resin) and schraufite (Lebanese amber). …