Amber – A gem from the sea

Today’s post is by Klaudia from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each sharing our passion and interest in the museum and its objects.

For more about fossils and prehistoric life at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Palaeo Manchester.

Amber – a gem from the sea

It is a popular and beautiful jewellery material, it is involved in one of the biggest mysteries of the 20th century and it is an extraordinary source of information about the past. These are only some facts about amber, a fascinating and mysterious material of great cultural and scientific value.

amber 8Specimens from East Prussia. LL.11956. Collected by Prof. Friedrich Adolf Paneth, University of Durham. (Image from: Manchester Museum Collection Online)

At Manchester Museum, you can find examples ranging from Baltic amber with inclusions, to decorative amber beads from Denmark, showcasing the variety of this unique fossil.

What is amber and what are the inclusions?

Amber is a popular name for what is more scientifically known as fossilised tree resin, which is essentially a byproduct of the defence mechanisms of trees. Some trees (such as pines and timber trees) produce resin – dense, sticky sap – to seal wounds and to protect themselves against insects and small reptiles.

What we know as ‘real amber‘ is fossilised tree resin from Cretaceous and Tertiary forests, which has been buried in sediment for millions of years. Younger, and not fully fossilised resin is known as copal and is not as valuable as amber.

Amber can be found on sea coasts around the world – when the fossils have been dislodged from the seafloor by waves, they are often washed up on our shores. The Baltic region (around the coastlines of Lithuania, Kaliningrad, and Poland, but also Germany and Denmark) is particularly rich in amber. Other notable places with significant amber deposits are Dominican Republic, Colombia, Myanmar, and China.

One of the features that makes amber so special is its ability to preserve animals and plants. The tree’s defence mechanism, I mentioned earlier, is rather efficient and this resin often traps small animals, plants, or their parts, forming what we know as amber with inclusions.

amber 4Fly and insect in amber from Miocene, Neogene, Dominican Republic

If you’ve seen the film Jurassic Park, you can probably recall the famous amber with a mosquito containing dinosaur DNA. While the attempts to extract DNA from amber have not been yet successful, amber preserves features such as feathers, soft tissue and even colours in an extraordinary condition, in comparison with other forms of fossilisation. These inclusions work as a time capsule and provide extremely valuable scientific information about the past.

The Amber Road and the Amber Room

People have been attracted to amber for many hundreds of years. In fact, it was one of the first materials used by our ancestors for decorative purposes. Pieces of amber used for decoration have been found at archaeological sites dating back as early as 11,000 BC.

Amber has been valued by many cultures throughout history – it was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, and was worth almost as much as gold to the Romans – but it has a particularly special place in Baltic and Slavic cultures. Amber used to be the main trading commodity from the area in the antiquity, it even gave its name to a trade route leading from the Baltic to the Mediterranean region, which became known as ‘the amber road’, and has travelled as far as Egypt and the Middle East. It also features in a number of local myths, such as a Lithuanian legend about sea goddess Jurate who sheds tear of amber in mourning her mortal lover Kastytis.

amber 6Baltic amber collected by a chemistry professor F. A. Paneth in Konigsberg, present day Kaliningrad.

A more recent mystery involving amber is the story of the Amber Room. The story tells of a grandiose chamber made entirely with amber and gold leaf, which was constructed as a proof of Prussian-Russian alliance in early 18th century. However, it disappeared in mysterious circumstances during World War II, and the surely hard-to-miss 180 square feet of amber have not been seen since!

amber 7A 1917 hand-coloured picture of the original Amber Room

Amber has always been seen as more than an ornamental material, and people realised that it is more than a pretty gemstone long before they became fully aware of its origins and properties. Because amber could attract light materials when rubbed, people used to think that it had the ability to draw illness out of bodies. In fact, the word elektron comes from a Greek word for amber because of the static electricity of amber noticed by Thales, a Greek philosopher.

Amber continues to charm people and is one of the ever-fashionable decorative materials.  Amateur archaeologists still look for the Amber Room, while recent findings of dinosaur feathers in amber from Canada and China remind us that it can still provide ground for breakthrough findings in science … and who knows, maybe the Jurassic Park scenario is not as far away as it seems!

Klaudia Januszewska

For more about fossils and prehistoric life at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Palaeo Manchester.

Sources and more information:
http://www.encyclopedia.com/earth-and-environment/minerals-mining-and-metallurgy/mineralogy-and-crystallography/amber
http://www.fossilmuseum.net/Tree_of_Life/FossilAmber.htm
http://www.ambermuseum.ru/en/home/about_amber/legends/jurate_and_kastytis
http://www.ambermuseum.ru/en/home/about_amber/in_ancient_times_and_middle_ages
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38224564
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38224564
http://www.history.com/news/feathers-in-amber-shed-light-on-dinosaur-plumage
https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=YIb0_tXhT_4C&oi=fnd&pg=PA5&dq=amber+fossils&ots=1gTSmagFiN&sig=CjBGLPozJjEqGbfe3BoMXKqLp0g&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=amber%20fossils&f=false
http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/fossils/Amber
http://mentalfloss.com/article/73608/15-clear-facts-about-amber
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/seeking-the-origins-of-amber-12725192/
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-amber-room-160940121/

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