Literary Sources on the Use of Amber

The archaeological record hints at a variety of uses of amber throughout the ages that are sometimes complemented by the surviving literature, but often are not. Certainly those uses that were by nature magical or tied up with mystery religions are unlikely to have been referred to other than obliquely in any mainstream literature, although they were extensive and widely acknowledged from very early on, through the Classical era and well into the Middle Ages. In addition, as helpful as the archaeological record is in elucidating the use of amber in mourning and burial contexts, it is less so when it comes to the everyday employment of amber as documented in the literature. Its use among the very wealthy ranged from girls’ playthings to decorative items such as the amber-encrusted goblet that Juvenal mentions in a satire to sculpture such as the imposing statue of Augustus that Pausanias describes to items for magical and religious purposes—amulets, incense, fumigators, and burnt offerings (which by definition do not leave any physical trace). Martial writes of the pleasant odor amber gives off when it is handled by girls, of “amber nuggets polished by hand,” and compares kisses to “well-worn amber.”114 In a letter to Marcus Aurelius, Fronto speaks scathingly of those writers (Seneca and Lucan) who “rub up one and the same thought oftener than girls their perfumed amber.”115 These analogies provide some explanation for the wear on many pre-Roman amber beads; magical use explains it further (figure 26).

Female Head in Profile pendant, Etruscan, 525–480 B.C. Amber, H: 5.7 cm (214 in.), W: 5.6 cm (215 in.), D: 3 cm (115 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.81.4. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 14.
Figure 26
Female Head in Profile pendant, Etruscan, 525–480 B.C. Amber, H: 5.7 cm (214 in.), W: 5.6 cm (215 in.), D: 3 cm (115 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.81.4. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 14.

Pliny (as usual) has a long list of possible uses: amber is carved into figurines (figure 27),116 fashioned into truffle-cutting knives,117 made into artificial gems,118 and in Syria used for spindle whorls. He also describes amber drinking cups, arms, and decorations of the arena (uses that would have been appreciated by men as well as by women), although he prefaces these examples with denunciatory comments at the beginning of Book 37: “The next place among luxuries [after myrrhine and rock crystal], although as yet fancied only by women, is held by amber. All three enjoy the same prestige as precious stones … but not even luxury has yet succeeded in inventing a justification for using amber.”

Lion with Bird pendant, Etruscan, 600–550 B.C. Amber, H: 4.2 cm (135 in.), W: 6 cm (238 in.), D: 1.5 cm (35 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.81.2. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 5.
Figure 27
Lion with Bird pendant, Etruscan, 600–550 B.C. Amber, H: 4.2 cm (135 in.), W: 6 cm (238 in.), D: 1.5 cm (35 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 77.AO.81.2. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 5.

Amber is also often burned; as Tacitus says: “If you make an experiment of burning amber by the application of fire, it kindles, like a torch, emitting a fragrant flame, and in a little time, taking the tenacious nature of pitch or resin.”119 Pliny observes that “amber chippings steeped in oil burn brighter and longer than the pith of flax.”120 This suggests that amber may have had a practical use as interior lighting. Pliny also cites evidence that the northern Guiones used amber instead of wood as fuel and refers to what must have been a very common use of amber as incense, suggesting that in India, “amber was, to its inhabitants, found to be more agreeable even than frankincense.”121

Such burning may seem a rather wasteful use of a precious material, but it was essential for offerings, for communication between the human and the divine, and even for feeding the gods, as in Egypt.122 As Joan Todd has pointed out, “From the earliest recorded times burnt offerings and specifically incense are considered the most sacred gifts of all. The burning of amber would not have been considered a destructive act, but rather an elevated use of the material.”123

Amber burned as incense was of great consequence in rituals involving solar deities before and during the Classical era, since both amber and incense were symbolic of the sun in the ancient world.124 Incense, which emitted a fragrant smoke when scattered on lighted coals (in either a stationary or a movable burner or censer), was a regular element in Babylonian religious ceremonies.125 The thousands of incense burners found in sanctuaries and graves throughout Greece and Etruria attest to the great importance of burning fragrant gums and spices. One of the oldest Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri, opened in the nineteenth century, was found to include “bits of amber and other oriental gums placed around the corpse,” as George Dennis recounts. A morsel carried off and later ignited by the excavator “caused so powerful an odour as to be insupportable.”126

“Incense ‘offerings’ were a normal part of sacrificial rituals and the use of incense was often called for in magical rituals.”127 In China, a nineteenth-century traveler records, chippings and amber dust left over from cutting figured pieces were used for varnish or incense. “The burning of the odiferous amber is the highest mark of respect possible to pay a stranger or distinguished guest, and the more they burn the more marked is their expression of esteem.”128

In ancient medical practice, incense, resins, wood shavings, and other odoriferous materials (usually plants) or aromatics were used as a form of fumigation, either alone or in compounds. It is also likely that amber incense was used in divination: omens were read in the plumes and short curls of smoke formed by burning amber (figure 28).129

Piece of burning Baltic amber, producing its distinctive flame color and characteristic smoke. Length of amber before burning: 3 cm (118 in.). Private collection.
Figure 28
Piece of burning Baltic amber, producing its distinctive flame color and characteristic smoke. Length of amber before burning: 3 cm (118 in.). Private collection. Photograph © Lee B. Ewing.

Amber incense may have been ground into a powder and mixed with other aromatics, or nitrates, to keep it burning. In Rome, as Karen Polinger Foster shows, “incense was shaped into cones, balls, discs, pyramids, obelisks, granules, and pellets” as it had been in Egypt and the Near East.130 But the Romans apparently did not follow the Egyptian practice of using figurative incense blocks in forms such as birds or recumbent calves, which clearly suggests a religious element to the burning of incense.131 A few pieces of unworked amber found in Etruscan graves might be construed as evidence of amber used for fumigation or as unburnt incense.132 And it may be that the very same amber objects considered then and now as ornament and amulet (for example, birds or recumbent calves) might also have been valued for their potential as light energy or incense.


  1. Martial, Epigrams 5.37.11. Martial compares the kisses of Diadumenus to “well-worn amber” in 3.65 and those of another (an unnamed youth) to “amber thaw’d in a virgin’s hand” in 11.8. Juvenal, Satires 6.573, makes fun of a woman who clutches “a well-worn calendar in her hands as if it were a ball of clammy amber.” Translations by Faris Malik:
  2. Fronto, “On Speeches,” in Correspondence, vol. 1, trans. C. R. Haines, Loeb Classical Library 112 (Cambridge, MA, 1919).
  3. “Its rating among luxuries is so high that a human figurine, however small, is more expensive than a number of human beings, alive and in good health.” Here, in Natural History 37.12, Pliny may refer to simple carvings such as the actors in the British Museum (, nos. 109–13), but it is more likely that he cites Roman masterworks such as the Dionysos group from Esch, the Netherlands: see, for example, A. Zadoks-Josephus Jitta, “Dionysos in Amber,” Bulletin antieke beschaving 37 (1962): 61–66. Or might Pliny be referring to household Penates of amber, as documented in the House of a Priest at Pompeii?
  4. Pliny, Natural History 22.47.99. , p. 12, declares such a use “an idiotic affectation,” but it may reflect the high regard in which amber was held.
  5. Pliny, Natural History 37.12, states that “amber plays an important part also in the making of artificial transparent gems, particularly artificial amethysts, although … it can be dyed any color.”
  6. Tacitus, Germania 45.
  7. However, Philemon is cited by Pliny (Natural History 37.11) as saying that amber does not yield a flame. , p. 24, citing A. Bonarelli, “Le ambre nelle tombe picene,” Rendiconti dell’Istituto Marchigiano di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti 3 (1927), and , col. 409, says that “it is recorded that before any regular excavations took place at Belmonte Piceno, the villagers used amber found in ancient tombs as fuel on their fires.” Strong adds (but without references), “The same practice is recorded in the Perugia district.”
  8. , p. 453. Amber’s combustibility (and its corresponding application of being burnt) is suggested by at least two of its ancient names: sualiternicum and thium. Thium is derived from the old Italic thyem, or thyon. Ritters, cited by F. Eckstein and J. H. Waszink, was the first to connect thium with incense. Still today, amber is an important ingredient of incense in India and many other places in the world and is advertised globally, as a Web search can demonstrate.

    On the ancient use of resins in incense, see , chap. 8. A. L. D’Agata, “Incense and Perfumes in the Late Bronze Age Aegean,” in , p. 85, notes that the ultimate origin of the Greek term for incense “can be traced back to the Mycenaean tuwo (pl. tuwea), which in the Late Bronze Age seems to have been used as a general term for aromatics, and cannot be in any way connected with frankincense.” D’Agata presents evidence that “other resins were known in the Aegean [during] the Mycenaean period, and probably also in Minoan Crete.” Nearly a ton of terebinth resin and a large group of worked Baltic amber beads were among the cargo of the late-fourteenth-century shipwreck at Uluburun off the Lycian coast (Turkey). See C. Pulak, “Who Were the Mycenaeans Aboard the Uluburun Ship?,” in Emporia: Aegeans in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean: Proceedings of the 10th International Aegean Conference, Italian School of Archaeology, Athens, 14–18 April 2004 (Aegaeum 25 [2005]), ed. R. Laffineur and E. Greco, pp. 295–312; and C. Pulak, “The Cargo of the Ulu Burun Ship and the Evidence for Trade with the Aegean and Beyond,” in Italy and Cyprus in Antiquity, 1500–450 B.C.: Proceedings of an International Symposium Held at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, November 16–18, 2000, ed. L. Bonfante and V. Karageorghis (Nicosia, 2001), pp. 22–25, 37–39. The Murex opercula found on the Uluburun ship is today an ingredient of incense in many parts of the Arab world; see G. F. Bass, “Prolegomena to a Study of Maritime Traffic in Raw Materials to the Aegean during the Fourteenth and Thirteenth Centuries B.C.,” in TEXNH: Craftsmen, Craftswomen, and Craftsmanship in the Aegean Bronze Age; Proceedings of the 6th International Aegean Conference, Philadelphia, Temple University, 18–21 April 1996 (Aegaeum 16 [1997]), ed. R. Laffineur and P. Betancourt, p. 163 (with reference to C. Pulak, “1994 Excavation at Uluburun: The Final Campaign,” Institute of Nautical Archaeology Quarterly 21, no. 4 [1994]: 11.)

    On incense in the Greek world, see W. W. Mueller, suppl. 15 (1978), s.v. “Weihrauch,” pp. 702ff. A. Testa, Candelabri e thymiateria in Vaticano (Rome, 1989); and L. Ambrosini, Thymiateria etruschi in bronzo: Di età tardo classica, alto e medio ellenistica (Rome, 2002), concentrate on frankincense and myrrh as incense ingredients. C. Zaccagnino, Il thymiaterion nel mondo greco: Analisi delle fonti, tipologia, impieghi (Rome, 1998); and C. Zaccagnino, “L’incenso e gli incensieri nel mondo greco,” in , pp. 100–20, offer a fuller discussion of incense, but no mention is made of amber. However, other ancient authors do describe additional substances burned as incense, as Mueller says. See Aristotle (Meteorology 4.10), where he lists in one breath “amber, myrrh, frankincense, and all the substances called ‘tears,’” and Theophrastus, On Odours 12–13, where he differentiates among myrrh, frankincense, and “anything that is burnt as incense.” G. Banti, “Names of Aromata in Semitic and Cushitic Languages,” in , p. 169, underlines the difficulty in “singling out the gum resins of frankincense and myrrh with respect to other aromata … particularly in the most ancient literary sources and in the reports by the earliest European travellers.” Burnt amber has a delicious odor. From all of the evidence in the ancient sources, archaeological evidence, and the widespread use of amber in incense throughout the world today, it is hard to believe that amber was not used as incense (or an ingredient thereof), in fumigation, and/or in sacrifice.

  9. , p. 109.
  10. J. M. Todd, “Baltic Amber in the Ancient Near East: A Preliminary Investigation,” Journal of Baltic Studies 16 (1985): 292.
  11. (in n. 110, above), p. 66; , p. 141. As Shennan summarizes: “Amber is a prehistoric exemplar of Mary Helms’ [] ‘political religious exotic experience.’ Northern amber thus mirrored southern myrrh as a mystic import to the Mediterranean (and was, on occasion, used in the same way).” Archaeological and linguistic evidence shows that the use of amber as a “gemstone” occurred in Greece and Etruria at the same time in the eighth and seventh centuries, alongside other “well-documented Near Eastern practices such as incense-burning, purificatory rituals, hepatoscopy, and the use of foundation deposits in temples”: , pp. 26–27. See also W. Burkert, “Itinerant Diviners and Magicians: A Neglected Element in Cultural Contact,” in The Greek Renaissance of the Eighth Century B.C.: Tradition and Innovation, ed. R. Hägg, Acta Instituti Anthenensis Regni Susiae 30 (1983): 115–19; and W. Burkert, “‘A Seer, or a Healer’: Magic and Medicine from East to West,” in , pp. 41–87.
  12. , p. 109.
  13. For amber and other resins surrounding the corpse in the Grotta della Sedia, Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, see G. Dennis, The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, vol. 2 (London, 1848), p. 59, n. 4, with reference to P. E. Visconti and A. Torlonia, Antichi monumenti sepolcrali scoperto nel ducato di Ceri, negli scavi eseguiti d’ordine di Sua Eccellenza il signor D. Alessandro Torlonia signore del Luogo dichiarati dal cav. P. E. Visconti (Rome, 1836), pp. 29–32.
  14. , p. 109. Burning and offering incense as a means of communication between the earthly and divine spheres is first attested in the Pyramid Texts of the third millennium and remained a central cult act in Egyptian temples erected by Greek and Roman rulers. In Mesopotamia, as B. Böck, “‘When You Perform the Ritual of “Rubbing”’: On Medicine and Magic in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 62, no. 1 (2003): 10, describes, “the burning of incense plays an important role in magical and latreutic cult because of its association with purity and impurity. Fumigation is part of the veneration of gods and, accordingly, the burning of sweet-smelling fumigants accompanies sacrifice, prayers, as well as intercessions.”
  15. E. A. Smith, “Concerning Amber,” American Naturalist 14, no. 3 (March 1880): 106.
  16. This practice is documented in Old Babylonian times; see , p. 109. See K. Polinger Foster, “Dionysos and Vesuvius in the Villa of the Mysteries,” 44 (2001): 43, n. 39 (with extensive discussion of smoke omens and divination). The Maya have used resin as incense throughout their history, from 600 B.C. onward. The act of burning copal, accompanied by the “language for rendering holy,” brings about interactions with deities and ancestors and initiates a series of transformative processes that characterize Mayan religious and cosmological beliefs. Copal pom is believed to be an effective medicine for many ailments, and its incense is considered “food for the gods,” since they cannot eat as mortals do, but instead imbibe the products of human ritual, primarily the smoke of incense—paralleling belief about incense in Egypt, Greece, and Rome (summarized from , pp. 29–67. Langenheim cites various sources, including K. J. Triplett, “The Ethnobotany of Plant Resins in the Maya Cultural Region of Southern Mexico and Central America,” Ph.D. diss. (University of Texas, Austin, 1999).
  17. Foster 2001 (in n. 129, above), pp. 44.
  18. On the interpretation of the function of amber in funerary contexts (are these grave offerings, ornaments, incense, or a combination thereof?), compare the discussion of some figured ambers from the New World: the amber figurines in the graves of certain northern Costa Rican peoples living there circa A.D. 700–1400 have been interpreted as grave offerings. , p. 282, cites C. S. Balser, “Notes on Resin in Aboriginal Central America,” in Akten des 34. Internationale Amerikanisten-Kongresses (Vienna, 1960), pp. 374–80, who “suggested that these figurines could have been intended for burning as incense after death.”
  19. Unworked lumps have been found in several Etruscan tombs (see n. 126, above).


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