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Amber in Archaeology: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Amber in Archaeology.

Without amber, there would be no electricity and no electrons: or at least, not under those names, for it was to the magic fossil resin, with its curious property of attracting other materials when rubbed, that the Greeks gave the name elektron. In addition to the meaning reflected in its electrical descendants, this word also had another application (that has come to us through Latin as electrum) to denote the amber-coloured alloy of silver and gold. Its present English name is - surprisingly for so typically European a substance - derived from the Arabic 'anbar via the Old French ambre (which is now attached to a well-known beauty product, hinting at its exotic allure). Not surprisingly, therefore, amber was one of the high-value materials of the ancient world, traded over distances otherwise achieved only by lazulite or precious metals.

Amber does not, of course, occur naturally in Greece, and was brought there from the other end of Europe. The Amber Route, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, is one of those features of later pro-history which in recent years has been more celebrated outside the subject than within it. While it makes a regular appearance in popular historical atlases (like Colin McEvedy's invaluable Penguin atlas of Ancient History), it was perhaps too tainted by diffusionist associations to seem altogether respectable to processualist archaeologists. Yet its recognition in the 1920s was one of the early achievements of the use of distribution maps; and it has continued to be a focus of interest in archaeological chemistry since Otto Helm first demonstrated the preponderance of succinic acid in Baltic ambers at the turn of the century. Over the intervening years, it seems that the purely archaeological approach, via typology, find-associations and distributions, has been rather more fruitful than the chemical one - since not only is the organic chemistry of resins a complex one, but the often degraded surfaces of archaeological specimens present peculiar problems. Just now, however, a new generation of organic chemists, with powerful new tools, is engaged in tackling the problem; while archaeological observations continue to cumulate and undergo synthesis. The result is one of the most delicate tracers for prehistoric European trade, especially in the Bronze and early Iron Ages.

The conference at Liblice in the Czech Republic took place eight years after a comparable gathering near Szombathely in western Hungary (published as Savaria 16); and these two points on the map serve to define the southern stretch of the Amber Route, as it twists to avoid the central European mountain barriers that deflect trade routes from the northern plain, and follows the edge of the Alps to Slovenia. This synaptic junction connects Denmark, Germany and Poland with Italy and thence also Greece and even the Levant. To call it a single route is of course an over-simplification, since it is the successive shifts of its initial course to east or west that sensitively follow the pattern of inter-regional alliances in later prehistoric Europe; but it is Italy that has consistently acted as its southern focal point. To (pseudo-)Aristotle, indeed (De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus: 81), the 'Amber Islands, which are situated in the corner of the Adriatic' were the actual source of this material: a hot lake near the river Eridanus (Po, in this context) was said to be surrounded by 'many black poplars, from which fails what is called amber. This, they say, resembles gum, and hardens like a stone, and when collected by the inhabitants is carried over to the Greeks.' Another variety, thought to be from Liguria, was supposed by Theophrastus to be the solidified urine of the lynx. Such a situation, in which the recipients were aware only of the last leg of the relay, must have been typical of trade along this route down to Roman times, when Pliny records that a knight of Julianus travelled along the entire distance from Rome to the Baltic to procure an exceptional quantity to decorate one of Nero's gladiatorial displays. This, too, indicates some of the motivations in acquiring this substance - for which the term 'trade' seems a rather prosaic description. Perhaps, then, this was the famous (but unspecified) 'gift of the Hyperboreans' to the sanctuary of Apollo at Delos, recorded by Herodotus in Book IV of the Histories as having been carried across the continent in its wrapping of wheat-straw; and here, therefore, is a prehistoric European exemplar of Mary Helms' 'political-religious exotic experience' (Helms 1988). Northern amber thus mirrored southern myrrh as a mystic import to the Mediterranean (and was, on occasion, used in the same way - amber has a pleasant smell when burnt, and was used in Serbia as recently as this century as a fumigant against jaundice: Kemp 1935: 267); both amber and incense in the ancient world were symbolic of the sun - it was truly ambre solaire.

This collection of papers is thus a timely one, in all sorts of ways. It begins with a sample of the sophistication of new technology (specifically pyrolysis/gas chromatography/mass spectrometry) from Jaap Boon and his associates in Amsterdam: a contribution which makes clear the urgent need for a good introductory textbook of organic chemistry for archaeologists, and explains important phenomena like macromolecular shrinkage, which not only 'destroys many precious objects' but is 'especially severe under museum conditions'. Caveat curator! Curt Beck, on the other hand, applies critical scrutiny to supposed reference samples of 'Sicilian amber' (simetite) - and shows many of them to have been imported from other parts of the world in the last century to eke out supplies, finding their way into mineralogical collections under false colours. He does, however, pin down true examples of simetite in a Pylos tholos-tomb dating to the years around 1600 BC.

Then follow regional archaeological studies, starting with western Europe and Anthony Harding on British spacer-plate necklaces of amber and jet as compared with gold lunulae (note that a & b are reversed in figure 3 caption). The parallels in morphology would seem to support the equation: amber=gold. Amber necklaces were worn by women, and it is likely that lunulae (unlike Celtic gold torques) were also female parure. Since the decoration on lunulae reflects the arrangement of beads and spacers, and since this ornament is also paralleled on Bell-beakers, he postulates a late Beaker 'proto-spacer necklace'. (Both may, in fact, go back to some textile; more beads, less textile, and there is the necklace. Vanished organic media are invaluable as postulated prototypes! The much earlier crescentic copper collar from a Baden-culture grave at Velvary in Bohemia, described later in the volume by Emilie Pleslova-Stikova, might be a parallel phenomenon.) Stephen Shennan then discusses British Bronze Age amber distributions, emphasizing the position of Wessex as the hinterland of the natural port of Hengistbury, with its Brittany connections. Bronze Age Wessex was no isolated, inland enclave, understandable only in its own terms. Shennan links discussion of the value of amber to the circulation of valuables discussed by anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai and Mary Helms, emphasising external connections for an exotic raw material along with the use of special craftsmanship to create 'limited editions' of thereby non-commodifiable artefacts. Colette du Gardin follows, with a useful survey of French finds that highlights the striking concentration of finds of all periods in the lower Rhone valley. Apart from the amber wristguards (which are unique to France), the typology of French material reflects contacts either with Wessex or with Germany. In the Netherlands, as reported by Kars & Boon, the most common finds are (not unexpectedly) Middle Bronze Age, with some raw material and roughouts indicating local working there.

The section on northern Europe opens with a survey of Swedish Iron Age (i.e. including Roman and Migration period) amber Objects, and there follow three papers dedicated to the memory of Fritz Horst of the former DDR Zentralinstitut in Berlin, whose maps of Bronze and Iron Age trade-routes in the North European Plain have done much to focus discussion, and whose personal presence at the meeting was sadly missed. Tadeusz Malinowski discusses amber procurement in Poland, and points out some features of its archaeological occurrence (such as the surprising rarity of this material at Biskupin: ten beads and two raw pieces). Jan Dabrowski also emphasizes the rarity of amber, by comparison with gold and glass, in graves of the Lausitz culture (Per IV-HaD), despite the occurrence of a 60-kg amber hoard plausibly related to nearby bronze hoards of this period. Both of these no doubt reflect its greater rarity value in the south (whence Hallstatt turned amber beads were sometimes re-imported). Zbigniew Bukowski then offers an astringent review of the sogenannte Bernsteinstrasse ('keineswegs auf die Art und Weise zu rekonstruieren, die in der Literatur ublich ist') and the sogenannter Hall-stattisierungsprozess thought to result from it in Early Iron Age Poland; though his quarrel is less with the concepts themselves than with their unsophisticated application, and there is no comfort here for isolationists. A consideration of Stone Age amber in the eastern Baltic by Ilze Loze rounds off this section.

The sections on central and Mediterranean Europe are introduced by Jan Bouzek, who rightly insists first on the quasi-magical properties of amber (not just 'prestige') then offers his own interpretation of shifts in the amber route. In addition to the classic north-south overland routes defined by de Navarro in 1925, he believes in an outer maritime 'ring-road' from Wessex to Mycenae: along the Atlantic to the Garonne-Aude route (and hence to du Gardin's lower Rhone concentration), then directly by sea around Sardinia and Sicily to Pylos. The off-cited gold-bound amber discs, one in Crete, two in Wessex, mark the extremes of this distribution. The recent discovery of a gold-bound amber ball at Zurich-Mozartstrasse (Barfield 1991), however, not only neatly interpolates another find, but would also support the alternative interpretation, that the chain of connections in fact ran along the land routes of the main Baltic-Tyrrhenian axis - to which the British link was simply a western spur (perhaps via the Rhine) - and reached Italy by going over or around the Alps. For the 16th-14th centuries, this pattern, centred on the Tumulus culture network with its lively trade in tin, seems to me to be infinitely more likely. The Sicilian simetite imports at Pylos (mentioned above) would suggest that the sea-route by which Baltic amber reached Greece from Italy in the earlier Bronze Age was a Tyrrhenian rather than an Adriatic one (the latter only achieving real importance after the 13th century BC, and more particularly after the founding of Spina in the 6th; only in the medieval period did Venice become economically more important than Rome).

In the rather different conditions of the Urnfield period, the Adriatic apparently did become more important, as indicated by finds of Tiryns-type beads. (In a later section, Emma Sprincz investigates Herodotus' and Pliny's references to the Veneti at the head of the Adriatic, and their role in northward contacts, for both amber and horses.) The analogies of the curious metal 'wheel' in which the eponymous Tiryns finds were mounted is the subject of a paper by Evzen Plesl, who describes comparable wire-work in east Bohemia - where amber finds of this period are lacking. What is clear from all this discussion is that the archaeological occurrence of relevant material (for instance in graves) is never a representative reflection of what was in circulation; only a full integration of all relevant evidence within a coherent model can suggest a pattern.

Plesl & Beck describe amber beads from an Unetice cemetery in Bohemia, and Klara Markova usefully catalogues finds from Slovakia - concentrated on the two main north/south routes of the Nitra and Horned. No mention is made, however, of the exciting find from Kyhna, near Leipzig, of an Unetice hoard with 24 amber beads and what appears to be an Aegean slotted spearhead (Gerloff 1993); that allows a rather longer-distance game of join-the-dots, for a period which now calibrates back to the late 3rd millennium. (Like all the best games, this one was started by a certain Mr Gordon Childe, in verbal comments after de Navarro's paper at the Royal Geographical Society in February 1925.) The regional, rather than chronological, grouping of papers in the present volume tends rather to bury such themes. Thus Zdenka Krumphanzlova now discusses finds from Slavic Bohemia, before the focus shifts to Italy and the Villanovan and Etruscan consumption of this material - which was arguably the motor of much of the 1st-millennium traffic described in the earlier papers dedicated to Fritz Horst. Carved, representational amber objects begin in Italy in the 8th century under Phoenician and Greek influence (and parallel comparable subjects in ivory): these are discussed by Nuccia Negroni Catacchio. Some of them decorate ornaments such as fibulae; other distinctive types include crouched monkeys and anthropomorphic fertility figures which must have had specific meanings and uses. There is also a group of characteristic female heads of the 6th-4th centuries, discussed by Maria Losi et al. The earliest carved-amber pieces are from Etruria and Latium: in later centuries, finds come to concentrate in the south, on the margins of Magna Graecia.

Helen Hughes-Brock then elegantly interweaves news of fresh Aegean Bronze Age finds into a fabric of interpretation, producing at the same time a very useful guide to the literature. One point that she emphasizes in a striking phrase is the way in which elite gifts circulated and counter-circulated, often taking 'good beer to Pilsen' - dobre' pivo do Plzne. In the case of beads to Egypt, however, some special property might be inferred; and this thought gains enhanced significance in the light of two further contributions. As Joan Todd describes, Baltic amber reached the east Mediterranean in the Bronze Age: it is attested in the Levant in the LBA, for instance at Megiddo and Tell Abu Hawam, and at Ugarit; and amber of unknown origin occurs even earlier in the Bronze Age. There is a Tiryns-type bead from Akhziv at the end of the 2nd millennium, and amber figures appear in the early 1st millennium; while Baltic amber was still arriving in the Roman period, when it had religious significance to Jewish communities (cf. 'the appearance of brightness, as the colour of amber' in Ezekiel 1.27 AV). Perhaps more surprising than these, however, is a late 3rd-millennium pendant from Tel Asmar (Eshnunna), which turns out to be copal - of postulated east African origin.

But the biggest surprise in the volume comes in Sinclair Hood's contribution. A few pieces from Egypt have been recognized as amber, though little systematic attention has been paid to the problem. The first finds are 18th Dynasty, beginning c. 1600 BC, and other objects apparently of amber come from 'foreign' (mercenaries'?) graves of the 19th Dynasty, around the 13th century. Textual references to SAG-KAL (Egyptian g k r, Pliny's sacal) in the Amarna letters, associating it with lapis lazuli and carnelian, appear to be amber - coming in rare diplomatic gifts. From the tomb of Tutankhamun there were recovered significant quantities of objects made of what was described as 'resin': ear-rings and other gold-mounted pieces, a necklace alternating 'resin' and lapis lazuli, a finger-ring and two large scarabs (one the heart-scarab, on the mummy itself), and a necklace of 60 beads from the famous painted box with its battle scene. This also contained four pairs of sandals, and robes decorated with 3000 gold rosettes. From their associations, the objects were clearly of a precious material; and it is now evident that they are, in fact, amber. Amazingly, however, the beads have never been published (although mentioned in Howard Carter's description), and a photograph of them from the archive in the Griffith Institute at Oxford appears here for the first time. This convincingly supports their attribution to the contemporary late Tumulus Culture of central Europe (Reinecke Br C), and they are almost identical with a famous amber necklace from Barrow 2 Grave 13 at Schwarza, Thuringia (conveniently reproduced in Gimbutas 1965: plate 54). That Tutankhamun's precious painted box (whose most recent and notorious appearance was on the dust-jacket of Peter James et al.'s Centuries of darkness) should have contained a string of beads that started out as raw material in the Baltic, were made up and travelled south through Germany and across the Alps, took ship from Italy and ended their journey in the Valley of the Kings, some 800 km up the Nile - that's a political-religious exotic experience! That's a Bronze Age world system!

References

BARFIELD, L. 1991. Wessex with and without Mycenae: new evidence from Switzerland, Antiquity 65: 102-7.

GERLOFF, S. 1993. Zu Fragen der mittelmeerlandischen Kontakte und der absoluten Chronologie der Fruhbronzezeit in Mittel- und Westeuropa, Prahistorische Zeitschrift 68: 58-102.

GIMBUTAS, M. 1965. Bronze Age cultures of central and eastern Europe. The Hague: Mouton.

HELMS, M. 1988. Ulysses' sail. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.

KEMP, P. 1935. Healing ritual: studies in the technique and tradition of the southern Slavs. London: Faber & Faber.

NAVARRO, J.M. DE. 1925. Prehistoric routes between northern Europe and Italy defined by the amber trade, Geographical Journal 66: 481-507.
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Author:Sherratt, Andrew
Publication:Antiquity
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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