Amber has fascinated people for thousands of years, especially those pieces that contain insects or fragments of plants. With its unique ability to preserve the organic material it imprisons, including strands of DNA, amber provides us with a translucent window onto the past.
Amber from the Cretaceous period (65 to 140 million years ago), when the later dinosaurs flourished, offers the earliest glimpses of many life forms. It was during this period that flowering plants evolved along with bees, moths, and other insects.
The world’s largest amber deposits come from the shores of the Baltic Sea, where amber has been gathered, traded, and crafted into decorative objects for at least 13,000 years. The Samland Peninsula alone produced 90% of all the amber in Europe. Until the mid-19th century, pieces of Baltic amber were collected off beaches, but from the 1850s dredging and mining operations took over.
Dominican amber – which is nearly always transparent and comes in yellow, honey, red, green, and blue colours – is mined around Santiago, where landslides reveal veins of lignite (the blackened, fossilized wood that accompanies amber deposits). Using shovels and machetes, amber miners burrow dangerously deep into the mountainside. Slightly softer than its Baltic cousin, amber from the Dominican Republic originates in a now-extinct tree called Hymenaea portera.
Amber was one of the first organic materials to be traded. It has been found in the form of pendants dating from the late Palaeolithic Era (c. 12,000 B.C.) and there is evidence of workshops dedicated to using amber. It has turned up in Greece (Mycenae shaft graves), in Egypt (Tutankhamen’s tomb), and in the south of England where an amber cup (right) was discovered in a burial mound excavated in 1856. The 3,500 year-old grave contained an oak coffin carved from a single tree trunk, bone fragments, a dagger, an axe head, and a precious amber cup, thought to be evidence of trade with the Baltic.
In his “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”, completed in the summer of 1734, the British poet Alexander Pope wrote:
“Pretty! In amber to observe the forms
Of hairs, or straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms!
The things, we know, are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there?”
We now know how they got there, but one or two things remain a mystery. No one is certain, for example, how amber manages to preserve what it entraps (known as “intrusions”). Compounds that become linked as the resin hardens may help to preserve them by dehydrating tissues and killing any bacteria that might cause decay.
Perhaps the most famous use to which it has been put was the creation of an Amber Room commissioned by King Frederick I of Prussia and originally installed in the royal palace in Berlin in 1711. Five years later, when Tsar Peter I visited Berlin to forge an alliance against the Swedes, the Amber Room was given to him as a gift and carted off to St. Petersburg. In 1755 Empress Elisabeth I had it removed to a larger space in the Catherine Palace and commissioned ten more carved panels.
The Amber Room survived the Russian Revolution, but in 1941 it was stripped by the invading German army and shipped to Königsberg Castle in eastern Prussia (ironically very close to large natural sources of amber). In the spring of 1945, the crates containing the Amber Room were almost certainly consumed by fire, although some believe they were hidden elsewhere. After much searching, the Russian government commissioned the reconstruction of the Amber Room in the Catherine Palace. At a cost of some US$12 million, it was completed in 2003.