The Ancient Transport of Amber

There is evidence for the movement of amber as early as the Paleolithic era. Rough pieces have been found in ancient dwelling caves in Britain and northern Europe at some distance from amber sources.110 Early on, amber likely was transported to the Mediterranean via a chain of exchange—there was no defined long-distance amber trade until the mid-second millennium B.C., when it probably was acquired in both raw and more finished forms.111 It is likely that amber traveled overland to the Mediterranean via the long route between north and south Europe, along the Oder, the Elbe, the Vistula, the Rhine, the Dniester, and other main European rivers.

It also traveled eastward. For a long period it, like tin, was carried by sea through the Gates of Hercules; Phoenicians were likely the main transporters. The Adriatic appears to have been the main destination for amber intended for the markets of the Italian peninsula.112 Once at the Adriatic, amber must have been moved by water along the Italian coast, finding its way inland along river valleys and mountain passes. It was likely traded from farther west and welcomed along with the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean goods that were transported to the central and western Mediterranean. The existence of raw and worked amber from sites around the Mediterranean and farther afield—on the Iberian peninsula, in Mesopotamia, in Anatolia, at Ugarit on the Syrian coast, and in Egypt—from the Bronze Age onward attests to its widespread value and transmission. Trade in amber was likely a series of short-range transactions from the sources onward, with a few outstanding exceptions. We should imagine seekers traveling to the northern amber deposits to obtain the precious material and learn its secrets. The “knowledge” that accompanies a highly prized substance was as important as the thing itself.

There is no literary evidence for direct trade between Italy and the north until the first century A.D. Pliny the Elder writes of a Roman knight, commissioned to procure amber for a gladiatorial display presented by Nero, who traversed both the trade route and the coasts, bringing back an extraordinary amount of the precious material, which was used to extravagantly decorate the arena. Like the rare animals that were sometimes displayed at such events, amber nourished the idea of exotica from afar—visible affirmation of Rome’s domination of the world.113


  1. Unworked pieces have been found in dwelling caves in Europe at the Grotte d’Aurensan in the Hautes-Pyrénées, at Judenes in Austria, at Kostelik and Zitmy in Moravia, at Cioclovina in Romania, and at Gough’s cave near Cheddar, Somerset, England, all of which are far from natural sources of fossil resin. An upsurge in the quantity of amber in the archaeological record is observed in the Early Neolithic. , p. 549, has shown that there is a source-to-distance gradient for Aurignacian personal ornaments and that they are frequently manufactured from exotic materials. , pp. 62–66, discusses amber’s value in light of its acquisition by political-religious elites living far from amber sources. Citing , Shennan summarizes:
    The spatially distant material, because of its strangeness, has great power, and experience of it can increase the power and prestige of those who acquire that experience.… The ultimate goal of those seeking such goods (shields or shell or stones or holy incense [or amber]) may well be directed towards obtaining (maintaining) access to material manifestations of the power and potency that imbues their cosmos, thereby continuing their close association and inclusion with the dynamics of the universe of which they are an integral part.… Many exchanged items have inherent magical or religious significance as “power-charged” treasures acquired from extraordinary realms outside their own heartland.
  2. Not all students of the material agree that it was traded in both finished and unfinished forms.
  3. In Pliny’s day, he relates (Natural History 37.11) that amber was previously “conveyed by the Germans mainly into Pannonia. From there it was first brought into prominence by the Veneti, known to the Greeks as the Enetoi, who are close neighbors of the Pannonians and live around the Adriatic.”
  4. J. Kolendo, A la recherche de l’ambre baltique: L’expédition d’un chevalier romain sous Néron (Warsaw, 1981).


Helms 1988
Helms, M. W. Ulysses’ Sail: An Ethnographic Odyssey of Power, Knowledge, and Geographical Distance. Princeton, 1988.
Shennan 1993
Shennan, S. “Amber and Its Value in the British Bronze Age.” In Amber in Archaeology: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Amber in Archaeology, Liblice, 1990, edited by C. W. Beck and J. Bouzek, pp. 59–66. Prague, 1993.
White 1992
White, R. “Beyond Art: Towards an Understanding of the Origins of Material Representations in Europe.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1992): 537–64.