Amber in Latvia
Amber has a special place among all the precious and semi-precious stones. Unlike other decorative materials, amber absorbs body heat and is comparatively easy to work. This is because amber consists primarily of organic compounds, instead of being formed through the action of inorganic substances. Amber is fossil resin. The chemical formula for amber is taken to be C40H64O4, but in reality the chemical composition differs for each piece of amber.
How Amber Is Formed
In the first stage, resin oozed from the trees. This took place intermittently and intensively, and often occurred repeatedly.
In the second stage, the amber ended up in the soil of the "amber forest". In the dry, well-aerated sandy soil physical and chemical changes took place in the resin, through the action of oxygen. The resin became harder and more durable.
In the third stage of amber formation, the amber-bearing deposits were washed out, transported and redeposited in a water-body. Amber was formed when the resin was washed by water rich in oxygen and alkaline sodium compounds. The action of these led to the formation of succinic acid and its salts. Amber that has been excavated or washed up changes under the influence of oxygen, so unlike the inorganic minerals, amber is unstable and changeable.
The Age of Amber
Amber is found in deposits of different ages. Well-known amber finds occur already in strata of the Mesozoic Era. However, the most important sources are deposits of the Tertiary Period. Baltic amber also belongs to this period, having been formed during the Eocene and Oligocene Epoch. Thus, our amber is about 30-40 million years old. Resin was also exuded by plants of the Palaeozoic Era, and some of this also fossilised, but since the fossilisation process has continued for a long time, the resin has carbonised and merged with coal. In the Quaternary Period too, in places with suitable climatic conditions, resin has been fossilised. However, this resin does not yet display all the characteristic properties of amber, and so is called copal, dammar or kauri.
Forms of Amber and Their World Distribution
Amber from the Mesozoic Era, most common in Cretaceous deposits, occurs in Japan, Taimir, Switzerland, Lebanon, Alaska, New Jersey and elsewhere. Amber that is earlier than the Tertiary Period is regarded as originating only from conifers. An example is New Jersey amber, exhibiting various shades of colour that are redder and darker than Baltic amber. Alaskan amber, on the other hand, is unusually transparent and intensely coloured, displaying a range of tones from honey-yellow to black. Japanese amber often has a pleasant caramel colour. It occurs together with marine fossils and is about 85 million years old. Located on Russia's Taimir Peninsula is possibly the world's largest Cretaceous amber deposit, while Lebanon has one of the oldest occurrences of amber, from about 120-130 million years ago.
Gemologists are only interested in a few forms of amber that have served as raw material for jewellery in different historical periods. These were all formed during the Tertiary: Baltic amber (succinite), Romanian amber (rumenite), Sicilian amber (simetite), Burmese amber (burmite), as well as amber from Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Succinite characteristically displays honey-coloured shades of yellow, and is unique in having a very high content of succinic acid: 2-8%. The term rumenite was introduced by Otto Helm in 1891 for the red-brown amber from the Buzeu Valley. It is not really correct to apply the term to the other forms of amber from Romania, since they are mostly pale yellow and exhibit marked internal cracking. The name simetite comes from the River Simeto, along whose banks Sicilian amber may be found. This amber, often fluorescent and showing an unusual range of colours, has nowadays become very rare. Burmite varies in colour from a rich brown to a watery yellowish tint (sherry-coloured), but intensive yellows and bone colours never occur. Most highly valued is cherry-red burmite. Often noted in the literature is the property of burmite of fluorescing in daylight with a blue-green or violet colour. Although Dominican amber is mentioned already by Columbus, it has become more widely known only during the past 20 years. The recently discovered sources are quite rich and provide comparatively large pieces. It is the softest form of amber, but in terms of other properties, Dominican amber resembles simetite.
Where Is Amber Used?
The most widespread use of amber is in jewellery. Since ancient times, amber pendants, buttons and beads have been made, as well as more complex items. Amber has been widely used to make religious artefacts. Equally ancient is the use of amber for medicinal purposes. Amber is used to heal both internal and external disorders. Amber's curative properties are thought to be connected with its content of succinic acid, which is a unique biostimulant. Since it is practically Baltic amber alone that contains a significant amount of succinic acid, we may consider that only Baltic amber has these medicinal properties, and each piece has them to a different degree.
The chemical composition of succinite is the reason why a large proportion of this amber is chemically processed. Pure succinic acid is produced for making medicines and is used as a strategic material on nuclear submarines and in the engines of spacecraft. By-products include amber oil and amber varnish. These are used to make high quality paints and varnishes. Amber varnish is essential for restoring the gilded roofs of architectural monuments.
The optical properties of amber have been utilised for a long time. In the Middle Ages, spectacles were made from amber, and at the present day, several manufacturers of optical equipment use amber to improve the quality of lenses.
Amber, particularly pressed amber or amberoid, is used as an insulator in electrical equipment. Such amber cores were also used in the equipment that measured radiation levels after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Amber in the World's Ancient Cultures
Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome figure prominently in all accounts of the history of civilisation, and among the archaeological finds from these cultures there also occur amber artefacts. Chemical analysis has shown this to be Baltic amber. Amber and tin were the goods that first aroused an interest in northern and western Europe among the people of the ancient world. Circulation of these materials stimulated the spread of civilisation. The Bronze Age world is symbolised by bronze weapons and amber religious ornaments - the secular and sacred providers of security.
Amber is mentioned in lists compiled by Assyrian jewellers around 1000 BC. In the Assyrian capitals Assur and Babylon amber beads have been recovered from temple and tower foundations. On the banks of the Tigris, at the site of the Assyrian city of Kalah, an amber figure has been found of Assyrian ruler Assurnasirpal (883-859 BC). Analysis has established that this is Baltic amber.
The ancient Greeks called amber elektron, which means "substance of the sun", and the capacity of amber to become charged and attract small particles later led to the name "electricity". Large numbers of amber beads have been found in the ruins of Mycenae. Amber also adorned the shoulders and hair of the ladies of Thebes, but it was most popular in ancient Rome. For example, the amber collections at the archaeological museum at L'Aquila in Italy include ladies' toiletry articles, mythological figures and groups, genre figurines, pieces in the shape of fruit, and rings. Particularly interesting is a collection of rings with female heads, accumulated during a comparatively short period, 60-160 AD. The value of amber in ancient Rome is indicated by the fact that a single piece of amber was equal in price to a strong slave. It was fashionable for ladies to carry a ball of amber in the palm of the hand, while amber-coloured hair was particularly favoured in the reign of Nero. There is reason to believe that amber was endowed with a special mystical, ritual or magical significance among the women of ancient Rome.How did amber reach the cultures of the ancient world?
The Amber Routes
The earliest written evidence regarding Baltic amber may be found in the writings of Tacitus. He notes that the Aesti are the only people who collect this treasure from the Baltic Sea and sell it to others. Along the trade routes, amber passed through the hands of several intermediaries, so the Greek and Roman descriptions of the northern lands where amber originated are inaccurate and often mystical. Much clearer than the vague mentions in written sources are the hoards of amber that mark the routes by which Baltic amber was traded to the lands of the ancient world.
Apart from the route leading from Jutland, where amber sources were used up already in the centuries before Christ, all of the later routes come only from the Baltic: the Sambian Peninsula, the Couronian Spit and the coast of Kurzeme. The eastern route (mentioned by Herodotus) led through the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and was also used by the Near Eastern states. The Vistula-Dniester route brought amber to the borders of the Roman Empire from the east, and the so-called Moravian Gate gave access to the heart of the empire. This depression connects the upper course of the Oder (and Vistula) with the upper reaches of the Morava, extending to the Danube at Bratislava. This is called the Great Amber Route, since it was very actively used during the reign of Emperor Nero, when amber was at the height of its fashion in Rome.
Amber Gathering and Use in the Baltic
Already in distant antiquity, the people living along the shore of the Baltic Sea not only collected amber for trade, but also made practical use of it as a decorative, curative and religious material. The oldest amber animal figurines date from the 8th-7th millennium BC. In the territory of present-day Latvia and Lithuania amber processing began in the 4th millennium BC. The most interesting finds of artefacts come from Sārnate, Lubāna and Juodkrante, and recently also from Purvciems (Ğipka). Many of these finds have been obtained in work directed by Dr hab. hist. Ilze Loze, corresponding member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences, who is also a member of the Amber Committee of the International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences. Amber was widely used as a magical material with curative properties and as a component of religious rituals among the neighbouring ancient Slavic peoples in Kievan Rus and Poland.
Along with the conquest of the Baltic by the crusaders in the 13th century, the local amberworking traditions declined. In the coastal area around Danzig, the Dukes of Pomerania established for themselves a monopoly right to collect amber. The Teutonic Order, having taken control of Prussia, seized the right to all the amber that was obtained. The local people, if they did not give up amber, were punished by hanging. The coastal villages of Latvia too were "adorned" with gallows for amber-thieves. To prevent theft of unworked amber, workshops were established as far as possible from the sources: at Bruges in 1302, at Lübeck in 1310, at Danzig in 1477, at Elbing in 1539 and at Königsberg only in 1641. The craft corporations produced mainly rosary beads. Gradually, the technique of amberworking was perfected. Characteristic finds from the 17th and 18th centuries include amber mosaics, inlaid designs and various sculptures. This was one of the boom periods of amberworking, when a unique Amber Cabinet was made, and later an Amber Room as well. The 19th century saw a transition from amber collection to amber mining at the sources in Palmnicken (Jantarnij). Initially, mining was from shafts, but opencast mining later developed. These are the world's richest sources of amber. The source is on the seashore, and part of it is under the sea. The prevailing marine current still transports lumps of amber from these sources, to be washed up on the shore of Lithuania and Latvia. The source is worked by the Kaliningrad Amber Plant.
Amber in Latvian Ethnography
Only in the 19th century, when the monopoly on amber gathering was lifted, could the coastal people re-establish the ethnographic tradition of amberworking that had been forbidden for centuries. The folk costumes in coastal areas preserve three typical ethnographic items made of amber. These are kniepķeni, brooches and beads. The kniepķens was used to fasten the opening of the woman's blouse at the neck, in a similar manner to modern-day men's cuff-links (see drawing), and were richly adorned with pendants. This motif is nowadays widely used in making a variety of pins. The brooches, used to fasten various items of clothing, were made of pure amber, with a traditional design engraved from the left-hand side. Usually they are round, but typical examples, such as heart-shaped and leaf-shaped brooches, also occur. There are also metal brooches inset with amber. Beads include three forms: cylindrical, barrel-shaped and rounded. Amber crosses are often found, too.
Forms of Baltic Amber and Amber Processing
99,8% of Baltic amber is succinite. There are very rare finds of beckerite and stantienite. The predominant tones of our amber are the yellows, but these may extend to red, brown, blue and green. The transparency also changes - from clear and transparent to bone-white and opaque, with a great variety of transitional forms. Just try to find two identical lumps of amber! You never will. There is no end of colour tone and transparency combinations. These are a consequence of differences in chemical composition, impurities and density.
Nowadays, amber is worked by professional craftspeople and applied artists. Contemporary jewellery often continues ethnographic traditions, retained by the inhabitants of the coast of western Kurzeme, but modern trends also appear. There is a Rīga school of amberworking, where metallic elements are also important, and a Liepāja school, where the unique character of the amber itself is highlighted. Professional craftspeople are nowadays trained at Liepāja. Right up to the early 20th century, whole families along the coast near Liepāja derived their main income from amber gathering.
The largest pieces of amber have been found in Prussia: one weighing 6750 g was found in 1803, and another weighing 9700 g came to light in 1860. Medieval sources mention even larger pieces - 12 kg and 16 kg lumps of amber, but there is no accurate information on these. The Amber Museum in Kaliningrad has a 4280 g amber piece, found in the 1950s. The largest modern-day find is from Sarawak in Malaysia, weighing over 50 kg and now kept in Stuttgart Museum of Natural History.
Inclusions in Amber
Amber is a unique embalming agent, so inclusions in amber attract considerable attention. The largest proportion of the inclusions - 80% - are insects. The aromatic resin attracted the tiny inhabitants of the "amber forest" and preserved them through the centuries, trapped in its shining embrace as evidence of the insect fauna of the time. Spiders are also common among the inclusions, and there are unique finds such as an amber-encased lizard and a frog. Forgeries of inclusions in amber are also sold. The inclusions help to date the amber.
Plant remains are often found as inclusions in amber. These are much more difficult to identify. They are used to reconstruct the landscape of the "amber forest". For example, swamp cypress remains occur in amber from both Europe and America. This suggests that the resin of the swamp cypress could also have changed into amber.
Mineral matter and soil also occurs as inclusions.
Where Can Amber be Seen and Purchased?
The richest collection of Baltic amber is kept at Palanga Amber Museum. Unfortunately, since the border shifted in 1921, this is no longer the territory of Latvia. The Latvian Nature Museum also has a comparatively rich collection. The largest archaeological and ethnographic amber collections are held at the Liepāja Museum of Art and History, the Latvian History Museum and the Latvian Institute of History. These are exhibited only in part, so visitors with a special interest need to apply in advance.
Worked amber is sold at many souvenir and art shops in Rīga and other cities, and, particularly during the tourist season, in squares and parks as well, mainly in the old town of Rīga.
© Text: Anita Saulīte, The Natural History Museum of Latvia, 2006
© The Latvian Institute
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