The Bronze Age

Archaeological evidence attests to widespread use of amber in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East by men, women, and children, primarily among the elite. As well as for amulets and adornment, it was employed to embellish arms and musical instruments, to create spindles, buttons, and pins, and to decorate boxes and furniture. Carved amber and amber-embellished objects were offered to deities and buried in sanctuary foundation deposits. In the Greek-speaking world and in Italy, these deities were almost exclusively female ones, especially those associated with childbirth. Amber was also significant in funerary contexts. Large amounts of it were buried in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae. Four of the graves in Circle A, which included both females and males, contained numerous beads: the most prolific was Grave IV, with nearly thirteen hundred. The beads “may have been imported ready-made, since [they] are different from the mass of Aegean ones.”180 The head and chest of the woman buried in Grave Omicron of Circle B were covered with various precious materials, including over a hundred amber beads and spacers.181

The resources required to obtain so much amber must have been enormous. At this stage, certainly, amber was a material for the social elite, although as time went on, it became more widely used. As Helen Hughes-Brock observed:

The large necklaces and spacer plates were only for the very few and very rich, and hardly found their way beyond the great centers of the northeastern and southwestern Peloponnese. However, generation by generation amber spread over the Mycenaean world and to Crete and down the social scale.182

The Late Mycenaean amber finds are in tombs of every type, and very occasionally in shrines—although no solid evidence connects them to any particular group of people, deity, or cult. In the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt, amber was a rare substance during the Bronze Age. A recently discovered small Baltic amber vessel in the form of a lion’s head was an exceptional object placed in the main chamber of the Royal Tomb at Late Bronze Age Qatna, at Tell Mishrifeh, Syria (Damascus, National Museum MSH02G-i0759). It, like the other exotic, high-prestige objects found on the remains of a multiburial bier, may have served a ritual purpose. It is the most significant figured amber to come from an excavation in the region. Was it carved in the Syro-Levantine region, at Qatna even, or might it have been an exchange object or diplomatic gift?183

Amber is attested with a high degree of probability in the New Kingdom, from the period of the 18th Dynasty (1550–1295 B.C.) onward, but only in exceptional circumstances and always in conjunction with other precious materials, such as rock crystal, gold, lapis lazuli, or faïence. Sinclair Hood argues that a number of “resin” objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen, including two heart (possibly) scarabs and the necklace that he identifies as being from the Tumulus culture of central/northern Europe, are actually amber.184 The Tutankhamen amber would be a very early instance of funerary amber in Egypt, and an extremely early instance of an amber scarab, a form that became a popular subject in Orientalizing Italy (eighth–seventh century B.C.), especially in Etruria, given the scarab’s importance as a sun symbol and its concurrent connection to rebirth.185

The importance of amber in Bronze Age northern and central Europe is demonstrated by major finds and significant objects pointing to several regional centers of manufacture with local characteristics, as Aleksandar Palavestra and Vera Krstić summarize.186

In Italy, the Middle Bronze Age finds of amber in the Basilicata and Late Bronze Age finds at Frattesina, in the Po valley, are symptomatic of an active trade in both raw and finished products. The amber finds from Italy are early evidence of a long tradition of amber consumption among women of high social rank on the peninsula.187


  1. S. Hood, The Arts in Prehistoric Greece (London, 1978), pp. 202-3. See E. M. Konstantinidi, Jewellery Revealed in the Burial Contexts of the Greek Bronze Age, S912 (Oxford, 2001), pp. 60–62.
  2. , p. 259.
  3. Quotation from , p. 259. See , p. 221. Undisturbed burials of both women and men show that burials could contain a single bead. The earliest amber with figural embellishment appears to be a unique (Greek-made) seal engraved with a bull, excavated from Tomb 518 at Mycenae, which, in the opinion of Hughes-Brock, may be one of the few certain cases of amber worked after its arrival in Greece. The sex of Tomb 518’s inhabitant has not been established.
  4. For Qatna, see A. J. Mukherjee et al., “The Qatna Lion: Scientific Confirmation of Baltic Amber in Late Bronze Age Syria,” Antiquity 82 (2008): 49–59; and M. Al-Maqdissi, H. Dohmann-Pfälzner, and A. Suleiman, “Das königliche Hypogaeum von Qatna,” Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft zu Berlin 135 (2003): 189–218.
  5. For amber in Egypt, see n. 103.
  6. , p. 50. See also G. T. Martin, Scarabs, Cylinders, and Other Ancient Egyptian Seals (Warminster, 1985); and E. Hornung and F. Staechelin, Skarabäen und andere Siegelamulette aus Basler Sammlungen (Mainz, 1976). lists the amber scarabs from Egypt in Italy. See also and . For Phoenician and Punic amulets, see E. Acquaro, “Gli scarabei e gli amuleti,” pp. 404–21, and M. L. Uberti, “Gli avori e gli ossi,” pp. 394–403, in . See also G. Hölbl, Ägyptisches Kulturgut im phönikishen und punischen Sardinien, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1986).
  7. , p. 23.
  8. For Frattesina, see, for example, ; A. Mastrocinque, “Le ambre di Frattesina, in protosoria e storia del ‘Venetorum angulus,’” in Atti del XX convegno di studi etruschi ed italici, Portogruaro, Quarto d’Altino, Este, Adria, 16–19 ottobre 1996 (Pisa, 1999), pp. 227–34 (with earlier bibl. including ); P. Bellantini, “Frattesina: L’ambre e la produzione vitrea nel contesto delle relazioni transalpine,” in Ori delle Alpi, exh. cat., ed. L. Endrizzi and F. Marzatico (Trento, 1997); and .


Andrews 1994
Andrews, C. Amulets of Ancient Egypt. Austin, TX, 1994.
Bissing 1931
Bissing, F. W. Freiherr von. “Studien zur ältesten Kultur Italiens II: Etruskische Skarabäen und Skaraböide aus Bernstein.” 5 (1931): 49–69.
Fuscagni 1982
Fuscagni, S. “Il pianto ambrato delle Eliadi, l’Eridano e la nuova stazione preistorica di Frattesina Polesine.” Quaderni urbanati di cultura classica 12 (1982): 101–13.
Hölbl 1979
Hölbl, G. Beziehungen der ägyptischen Kultur zu Altitalien. 2 vols. Leiden, 1979.
Hughes-Brock 1985
Hughes-Brock, H. “Amber and the Mycenaeans.” Journal of Baltic Studies 16, no. 3 (1985): 257–67.
Hughes-Brock 1993
Hughes-Brock, H. “Amber in the Aegean in the Late Bronze Age: Some Problems and Perspectives.” 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. 219–29. Prague, 1993.
I Fenici 1988
Moscati, S., ed. I Fenici. Exh. cat. Milan, 1988.
Negroni Catacchio 1989
Negroni Catacchio, N. “L’ambra: Produzione e commerci nell’Italia preromana.” In Italia, omnium terrarum parens: La civiltà degli Enotri, Chone, Ausoni, Sanniti, Lucani, Brettii, Sicani, Siculi, Elimi, edited by C. Ampolo et al., pp. 659–96. Milan, 1989.
Negroni Catacchio 1972
Negroni Catacchio, N. “La problematica dell’ambra nella protostoria italiana.” Padusa 8 (1972): 1–8.
Palavestra and Krstić 2006
Palavestra, A., and V. Krstić. The Magic of Amber. Belgrade, 2006.
Zazoff 1968
Zazoff, P. Etruschische Skarabäen. Mainz, 1968.