Early Iron Age and the Orientalizing Period

After about 1200 B.C., amber was much scarcer throughout the Mediterranean until about the mid-eighth century B.C., when it begins to reemerge appreciably in archaeological contexts. For the most part, it was at the end of the eighth and especially during the seventh centuries when amber was most popular in Greece and peninsular Italy. This is not to leave out a few extraordinary tenth-to-early-eighth-century exceptions, notably at sites in Italy, in Latium, at Castel di Decima, and, most recently, in the Roman Forum and in the Basilicata, in the area between the Agri and the Sinni, where, in the graves of elite women, remarkable amber parures were discovered. This is the case with a girdle with interspersed bird-shaped beads from the Enotrian Tomb 83 at Latronico.188 On the whole, amber-embellished objects were buried in both male and female graves, but figured amber is almost exclusively found in those of women and children.189

Carved figured ambers of eighth-to-seventh-century date are characteristically small (on average, roughly fingertip size), suggesting that these works, mainly pendants, were carved from small pieces. None are composites, that is, works made from almost imperceptibly joined pieces, as is characteristic of contemporary fibulae from Etruria, Campania, and the mid-Adriatic. Among the earliest figured finds are those from the eighth-century necropolis at Veio Quattro Fontanili. They include a standing ithyphallic male, monkeys,190 a horse, a duck, and a human lower leg and foot, as well as both scarabs and scaraboids, some of which have intaglio horses engraved on their flat side.191 All of these are amuletic subjects of great antiquity, and truly Orientalizing.192 A cinerary urn buried in the First Circle of the Interrupted Stones at Vetulonia (of circa 730–720 B.C.) contained a number of high-status objects, including an amber scarab, thus indicating an object interred after cremation.193 The scarab may well have been an import, like the accompanying glass beads and bronze Phoenician bowl, although the urn also contained locally produced objects. A number of female graves in and around Magna Graecia each contained but one small waterbird, which may be related to the Egyptian duck amulet, a symbol of regeneration; it may also be related to the duck symbol of northern Europe. Since the Bronze Age, the duck, a multivalent symbol both guardian and apotropaic, was believed to connect the chthonic and other worlds.194

In Greece, worked amber was buried in foundation and votive deposits as well as, more rarely, in graves. A pair of Geometric-date tombs (possibly of priestesses or princesses) at Eleusis offer critical evidence of amber in the burial of women of the highest rank.195 The rich tombs include sumptuous grave gifts, among them necklaces of gold, amber, and faïence, and amber-inlaid ivory furnishings. The presence of glowing elektron bears witness to the lavish and exceptional occasion of the entire funeral process.

Both figured and nonfigured ambers have been excavated at sanctuaries dedicated to a limited number of divinities, mainly female. These include objects from the sanctuaries of Artemis (Ephesus), Artemis Orthia (Sparta), Hera Limenaia (Perachora), and Apollo Daphnephoros (Etretria). Intaglios were found at Perachora, and two animals at Aetos (Ithaca). The earliest date to the decades around 700 B.C. and represent birds at rest and couchant animals, and they, like the contemporary Italian objects, are generally quite small. At Ephesus, the foundation deposit was buried circa 700 near the cellar of the temple of Artemis. Anton Bammer has suggested that the ambers (and accompanying ivory objects) are the remains of a pectoral worn by an early statue of the goddess.196 Other figured Greek works of this period include the by-now traditional subjects of figured amber: crouching monkeys, recumbent lions, human heads, birds, and other species.197

The seventh-century B.C. ambers from Italy are almost exclusively mortuary and more extensive in number, type, and size than the contemporary Greek examples. As is characteristic of all art from the Orientalizing period, they take on a character different from the eighth-century material, although birds, especially ducks, retain their popular status, as they do in other figurative arts in Italy. At some sites, figured amber is found in combination with faïence amulets of Egyptian fertility and protective subjects.198 The primary seventh-century finds have come from Etruria, Campania, and Latium; Etruria Padana and elsewhere in the mid-Adriatic; and from the Basilicata. Recent discoveries in southern Italy and at the Adriatic site of Verucchio (near Rimini) have greatly modified the picture of amber importation and use. One rare figured subject from the extraordinary amber-rich graves at Verucchio is a fibula decoration of addorsed ducks.199

Figured ambers excavated at southern Etruscan sites include the ubiquitous monkeys and a number of standing “nude” females, their arms in various poses associated with fertility.200 An exceptional example, dating to the first half of the seventh century, is the elaborate grouping of amber pendants and beads (possibly a collar) found on top of the cremation layer in a tomb at Vetulonia.201 Little else accompanied the strings of amber: the figured pendants include a fish,202 a scaraboid, seven monkeys, and eleven standing female figures dressed only in collars and armlets, with legs apart, the vulva exposed, and hands placed on the lower abdomen. The most important pendant represents an enthroned female giving birth, the infant’s head appearing between her legs.203 This tiny amber is the strongest evidence to date for a direct link between amber and childbirth.

Many other types of figured amber from the second half of the seventh century correspond to standard Egyptian amuletic iconography. Among the most popular are the dwarf deities, such as Bes and Pataikos-Ptah—the most common Egyptian protective genies.204 Bes was known to protect sleepers and women in childbirth and safeguarded the young mother and her children. Both figures have solar associations; the Pataikos-Ptah figure, part adult and part infant, symbolized the infant sun. Almost without exception, the images on early amber carvings were reiterations of Egyptian-sourced solar and rebirth symbols.

The main focus in this catalogue is amber in the form of figural subjects, but the many beads and pendants of this period in botanic or shell forms are also important, since they, too, served a similar role via a metonymic process. Amber cowrie pendants, common in Italy from the seventh to the fifth centuries B.C., were potent subjects of fertility and childbirth, since the mature cowrie shell was thought to resemble the vulva. The extraordinary Getty Cowrie Shell / Hare pendant (figure 42), for instance, combines two subjects: fertility and regeneration. Scarab-cowrie combinations, such as that represented by a ninth-century B.C. amber from Tursi (Basilicata), do the same. In Egypt, both real cowries and imitations in gold and other materials were strung together to make girdles and worn in the pelvic region.205

a & b. Cowrie Shell / Hare pendant, Italic or Etruscan, 600–500 B.C. Amber, H: 3.7 cm (112 in.), W: 2.6 cm (1 in.), D: 1.4 cm (12 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 79.AO.75.28. Gift of Stanley Silverman. a) front; b) back. See cat. no. 30.
Figure 42
a & b. Cowrie Shell / Hare pendant, Italic or Etruscan, 600–500 B.C. Amber, H: 3.7 cm (112 in.), W: 2.6 cm (1 in.), D: 1.4 cm (12 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 79.AO.75.28. Gift of Stanley Silverman. a) front; b) back. See cat. no. 30.

The most important surviving ensemble of the seventh century from Italy is that of a high-ranking woman buried at Latin Satricum (Tomb VI).206 The grave, dated to circa 650/640 B.C., contained a flint (actually a Neolithic obsidian scraper)207 and more than five hundred amber objects—fibulae, spindles, nonfigured beads and pendants, and numerous figured objects. The medley of stylistic and iconographic connections of the objects is typical of the period and place, but the burial is without parallel: it is the largest single burial with amber from ancient Italy. The figured pieces include nude females and males (some doubled and addorsed), fantastic creatures,208 and fish, and some of the pendants were carved from large amber blanks. Some pendants are unique, others variants on or copies of Egyptian subjects: fish, Bes, and patakoi. The unworked pieces of amber, here and in other tombs, may also have served as fumigants, unburnt incense, or apotropaics.209 This grave’s goods and the many contemporary large amber fibulae of the mid-Adriatic of these decades speak to new sources (geographic or cultural) of or new access to big pieces of jewelry-grade amber.


  1. S. Bianco in , pp. 94–96, ill. p. 99.
  2. This is theorized on the basis of a small percentage of excavations or published accounts; the number of unpublished graves and deposits with amber objects and the amount of pre-Roman amber in non-source-country museums and collections (from old or unreported finds and uncontrolled excavations) is unfortunately very high. The exceptions are critical (such as the male Tomb 43 at Melfi-Pisciolo).
  3. Orientalizing Greek and Etruscan images of nonhuman primates are generically referred to as “monkeys” in the literature, although some may represent baboons, especially the hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas), as well as a long-tailed monkey (Cercopithecus) and the green monkey, or vervet (Cercopithecus aethiops). The prototypes of the eighth-to-seventh-century amber pendants from Italy (Etruscan, Latin, Faliscan, Picene) are Egyptian in invention, but they also may have derived from Phoenician examples and could be related to northern Mesopotamian, northern and western Syrian, Old Babylonian, and Anatolian types and symbolism. In Egypt, amulets in the form of monkeys and baboons are first known in the Old Kingdom, made of steatite and faïence, then of amethyst and carnelian in the Middle Kingdom, and in a wider variety of materials from the New Kingdom onward. The green monkey is most often the subject of Egyptian and Phoenician simian amulets: its humanlike features, the females’ motherly love, its cleverness and ability to mimic, and its greenish color (symbolic of freshness and regeneration) account for its popularity. It participates at the side of the dwarf as an emissary of Ra, the sun-god, in magical invocations for successful parturition and thus has a solar aspect (, p. 66). In Egyptian glazed-composition faïence maternity amulets, where it is joined with Bes, the green monkey takes on the role of nurse for the newborn and is connected to music and dance, as associated with birthing. For the monkey and maternity, see also , pp. 99–102. Monkey representations in the Levant seem to carry several connotations, of both Near Eastern and Egyptian origin, including veneration, eroticism, good luck, and best wishes. In erotic scenes on Old Babylonian terracottas, simian dancers often keep company with dwarfs. As S. Schroer and J. Eggler, “Monkey,” in Iconography of Deities and Demons in the Ancient Near East, http://www.religionswissenschaft.uzh.ch/idd/prepublication.php (accessed November 12, 2009), p. 1, note for Mesopotamian and Elamite art, “Just like in Egypt, there is a proximity between the monkeys and the Nude Goddess. This may be due to their playful nature, but also their excitability … leading to their association with sex and eroticism.”

    Amber and glazed-composition amulets of monkeys might work in various direct and indirect forms of magic: to ensure love and sexual fulfillment; to provide sexual aid in this world and the next, to aid in rebirth and rejuvenation, to assist in the care of newborns, and to inject humor (a potent aversion technique). On the nonhuman primate in Egyptian art generally, see , pp. 66–67; and A. Kozloff, ed., Animals in Ancient Art from the Leo Mildenberg Collection (Cleveland, 1981), pp. 67–69, nos. 54–56. For a wide range of opinions about “monkeys” in Etruscan art, see , p. 415–16, and esp. 445–50. See also , pp. 138, 141; , pp. 280–82; ; F.-W. von Hase, “Die golden Prunkfibel aus Vulci, Ponte Sodo,” Jahrbuch des Römisches-Germanischen Zentralmuseums Mainz 31 (1984): 269–75; J. Szilágyi, 1972: fasc. 1:111–26; and D. Rebuffat Emmanuel, “Singes de Maurétanie Tingitane et d’Italie—Réflexions sur une analogie iconographique,” 35 (1967): 633–44. For an Etrusco-Corinthian aryballos in the form of an “ape,” see B. A. Kathman in , pp. 95–96, no. 95.

    For the monkey in the Minoan world, see N. Marinatos, “An Offering of Saffron to the Minoan Goddess of Nature: The Role of the Monkey and the Importance of Saffron,” in Gifts to the Gods: Proceedings of the Uppsala Symposium 1985, Boreas 15, ed. T. Linders and G. Nordquist (Uppsala, 1987), pp. 123–32, who argues convincingly for a religious function for monkeys and interprets various Minoan roles for them: as adorants, as intermediaries between humans and the goddess of nature, as her servants, and as guardians. Marinatos draws parallels with Egyptian and Anatolian images of squatting monkeys (nn. 10, 17) and suggests the images’ possible entry into Crete in the Middle Bronze Age, but points also to Mesopotamian examples of the squatting posture. Both Egyptian and Near Eastern prototypes are proposed, with reference to R. D. Barnet, “Monkey Business,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 5 (1973): 1–10; and C. Mendelson, “More Monkey Business,” Anatolian Studies 33 (1983): 81–83. F.-W. von Hase 1984 (above) proposes Phoenicians as intermediaries in the transition of the motif to Italy. For a view on the possible permutation of the “monkey” type into human imagery in early Greece, see S. Langdon, “From Monkey to Man: The Evolution of a Geometric Sculptural Type,” 94 (1990): 407–24.

    To be added to this discussion are the simianlike “emaciated humans” of the Old Babylonian period, the clay plaques of the goddess Nintu, and the separate statuette images in the same form. D. Parayre, “Les âges de la vie dans le répertoire figuratif oriental,” KtèMA 22 (1997): 67, identifies the figures as representing premature or deformed fetuses. See her figs. 10a (stamped relief possibly from Tell Asmar, Louvre) and 10b (bronze statuette, Cincinnati Art Museum). Parayre suggests that the fetus images may be figural transpositions of the šumma izbu series, listing the precautions to take in the case of premature, nonviable, or monstrous births. If the amber pendants represented such fetuses rather than monkeys or baboons, they would be extraordinary “like banishes like” amulets. Alternatively, if the amber monkeys are identified with the Minoan interpretation of the type (following Marinatos), they may be associated with the local nature goddesses in Crete, as in Mesopotamia.

  4. For Italian finds of eighth- and seventh-century date, is the most complete compendium of objects and earlier bibl., including . The Iron Age Greek amber finds are listed in , pp. 21–24 (with earlier bibl.). The horse imagery, which appears early and remains until the fourth century B.C., deserves closer study. Although the horse has good connotations throughout the ancient world (the Egyptian hieroglyph for “beautiful,” nefer, is a prancing horse), it had both positive and negative aspects in Greece. “The horse was strongly associated with Poseidon, a dark and marginal god, a god of the frightening sea and destructive earthquake. According to myth and cultic tradition, Medusa and Erinys (or Demeter-Erinys) each assumed the shape of a mare to become the consort of Poseidon, and subsequently bore him the foals Pegasus and Areion.… From Homer onwards, [Erinys and Medusa] represent the grim, horrific and threatening aspects of the chthonic world”: , pp. 375–76, nn. 36–38. An amber horse may have worked as a danger-averting object.
  5. On the Orientalizing phenomenon in Italy, see D. Ridgway, “The Orientalizing Phenomenon in Campania: Sources and Manifestations,” in , which takes the phenomenon far beyond Campania. Ridgway’s term medley is useful in describing sources of Orientalizing art. Also apt is his assessment of the term Phoenician: “We cannot simply call the orientalia (and Orientals) in question ‘Phoenician’ e basta.” The term encompasses considerable diversity; as coined by the Greeks, it was used to describe Bronze Age Canaanites, Iron Age Phoenicians, and Punic Carthaginians. See also I. J. Winter, “Homer’s Phoenicians: History, Ethnography, or Literary Trope? (A Perspective on Early Orientalism),” in , pp. 247–72. Compare , p. 38, n. 3, who concludes that the terms Phoenician and North Syrian are useful and readily understood stylistic labels, despite their inaccuracies and problems.
  6. Poggio alla Guardia Necropolis, Tomb 7. , p. 15, cites the burial as indicating early connections with the Near East.
  7. , p. 428. The birds are waterfowl, often ducks, represented as if afloat. See S. Bianco (with bibl.) in ; and . An eighth-century necklace of bulla-shaped bronze pendants inset with convex pieces of amber and with sleeping ducks above and below (mirrored compositionally) is an important early Italian object that associates amber, the sun, and ducks.
  8. For a recent consideration of the pair of tombs, see J. B. Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton, 2007), p. 224. For the larger discussion of precious materials and grave gifts in death, ceremony, and burial, sources consulted include C. Sourvinou-Inwood, “Reading” Greek Death: To the End of the Classical Period (Oxford, 1995); S. Campbell and A. Green, eds., The Archaeology of Death in the Ancient Near East (Oxford, 1995); M. Parker Pearson, The Archaeology of Death and Burial (Gloustershire, 1999); and D. Bolger, Gender in Ancient Cyprus (Lanham, MA, 2003).
  9. A. Bammer, “Kosmologische Aspekte der Artemisionfunde,” in Der Kosmos der Artemis von Ephesos, Sonderschriften des Österreichischen Archäologischen Instituts 37, ed. U. Muss (Vienna, 2001), pp. 11–26.
  10. Also mentioned by , p. 68.
  11. This is noted by ; and , p. 78.
  12. Verucchio (Rimini), Lippi Necropolis, Tomb 27, inv. 11392: P. von Eles, entry for no. 395, in , p. 295; , p. 161, n. 553, pl. LXI. See also , pp. 91–92.
  13. Nude and partially clothed humans (with primary and secondary sex characteristics exposed) were potent signs of sexuality, both promoting fecundity and controlling conception, but such pieces also would have encompassed powerful apotropaic, guardian, and positive-attraction forces. For “fertility” gestures, see P. Demargne, La Crète dédalique: Études sur les origines d’une renaissance (Paris, 1947), pp. 38–39; , p. 253, no. 21; , pp. 433–34, (with additional bibl. and pertinent comparanda, including ivory and bucchero caryatid supports of ritual vessels). For the relevant caryatids, see H. Salskov Roberts, “Some Observations on Etruscan Bowls with Supports in the Shape of Caryatids or Adorned by Reliefs,” Acta Hyperborea 1 (1988): 69–80. Demargne, on the basis of the Cretan material, distinguishes nine types of pudical gestures (and their predecessors). For this Orientalizing material, the gestures may be read as they may have been in Egypt: the pose or gesture is a “still.” As explains, a figure’s gesture may be the visual recording of the most characteristic movement within a sequence of movements. The image thus registers the most memorable or significant movement or gesture in a sequence.
  14. Florence, Museo Archeologico Nazionale 7815.
  15. This fish pendant is close to the Egyptian lates amulet type, an emblem of the goddess Neith, one of the four great protectresses of the dead.
  16. , p. 100, queries the identity of the figure between the legs of the seated woman—is it a child or a monkey? It must represent a birthing scene, the throne a birthing chair, the head that of an infant human. For the tiny birthing amber, see also , p. 429; von Hase 1984 (in n. 190, above), p. 274; , p. 46; I. Falchi, Vetulonia e la sua necropoli antichissima (Florence, 1891), p. 101, pl. 7.4; and L. Pernier, “Vetulonia: Il circolo del monile d’argento e il circolo dei lebeti di bronzo,” 22 (1913): 425–37.
  17. Bes was closely associated with Hathor, as was the related dwarf-god Pataikos-Ptah. Although dwarf figures were associated with a number of gods, they were commonly linked with Bes, often called simply “the dwarf.” V. Dasen, “Pataikos,” Iconography of Deities and Demons (in n. 190, above), p. 1, summarizes: “The term pataikos is first used by Herodotus (Historiae 3.37) to describe representations of the god Ptah in the form of a dwarf equated with Hephaistos,” and “it remains unclear whether [pataikoi] depict various forms of one and the same god, or a group of dwarf gods, as with Bes.” Connected with solar and rejuvenating symbolism, they were regarded as a solar hypostasis, embodying the morning form of the sun-god, newly born and old at the same time. “Their association with the continuing process of creation may have motivated their identification with Ptah in his capacity as a creator god and likewise with Horus, Khnosu, Osiris, and other youthful and regenerative gods.” In respect to protection, Pataikos-Ptah seems to have been concerned with both the living and the dead; it aimed to guard the family, especially pregnant women and small children, against unpredictable negative forces. As prescribed in magical spells, pataikoi could be worn around the neck as helpers during delivery. Pataikoi are often discovered in burials, where they had a strong afterlife symbolism; see Dasen, above (with refs.). For Bes, see esp. M. Malaise, “Bes et les croyances solaires,” in Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim, ed. S. Israelit-Groll (Jerusalem, 1990), pp. 680–729. See also V. Dasen, Dwarfs in Ancient Egypt and Greece (Oxford, 1993), pp. 54–83; 3 (1986), s.v. “Bes” (A. Hermary), pp. 98–112; and . For the Egyptian and imitation Egyptian amulets of Bes figures and pataikoi, see also H. Győry, “To the Interpretation of Pataikos Standing on Crocodiles,” Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux-Arts 94 (2001): 27–40; and , p. 39. Hathor, the “goddess of sexuality, fertility, and childbirth, was also a funerary goddess who presided over the necropolis; she helped women give birth in this world but also facilitated the rebirth of the deceased into the afterlife”: G. Robins, “Dress, Undress, and the Representation of Fertility and Potency in New Kingdom Egyptian Art,” in , p. 28. For the dwarf amulet as a health amulet of Hathor, see also G. Pinch, Votive Offerings to Hathor (Oxford, 1993). These dwarf images may have functioned not only to protect the state of birthing, but also to control fertility and birth spacing—equally critical issues for young families—for the protection of the mother’s health and that of her young. On birth spacing, see n. 15.
  18. On cowries, cowroids, and cowrie-shell imitations in Egypt, see , p. 107; , p. 42; and R. E. Freed in Quest for Immortality 2002 (in n. 75, above), p. 102, no. 17. For a discussion of the cowrie in amber, see 79.AO.75.28 (cat. no. 30).
  19. For the find, see the exhaustive treatment in ; and .
  20. , pp. 410–11, nn. 1058–64: the “flint” likely originated on the nearby island of Ponza and is thus one of several secondarily reused in the Iron Age. Obsidian “flints” are found in central Italy in tombs dating from the ninth to the seventh centuries and in several Latin votive deposits, including in Satricum. A tomb from Terni yielded a Neolithic flint wrapped in an embossed bronze sheet medallion with a representation of Bes. Waarsenburg suggests that the “flint” from Tomb VI would have been known in antiquity as a ceraunium, or lightning stone. P. Tamburini in Antichità dall’Umbria a New York, exh. cat. (Perugia, 1991), p. 276, discusses such lightning stones and cites A. Cherici, “Keraunia,” 41 (1989): 372, n. 37. Tamburini points to the ancient belief “in the heavenly origin of prehistoric flintstones found by chance on the ground … [and] their relation to the thunderbolt” and “to their simple apotropaic function.” Still in early-twentieth-century Italy, Neolithic flints are recorded as important amulets to protect against lightning, and to protect people, animals, houses, and land against natural disasters, as G. Bellucci (in n. 150, above) shows. In Etruria, both Menerva and Tinia could hurl thunderbolts, and as such they may have had oracular faculties, as suggested by G. Camporeale, “La manubia di Menerva,” in Agathos daimōn: Mythes et cultes; Études d’iconographie en l’honneur de Lilly Kahil (Athens, 2000), pp. 77–86. , p. 411, notes that “a functional and semantic relationship seems to have existed also between Eileithuia, lightning and the Elysium.… An entry in [the Suda] states that Eilusion—normally the afterlife world—was also used to denote a place hit by lightning.” Was the flint a special amulet of protection against lightning?

    A carved amber in New York likely represents a thunderbolt (a perfect marriage of subject and material). Metropolitan Museum of Art 1992.11.22, Purchase, Renée E. and Robert A. Belfer Philanthropic Fund, Patti Cadby Birch and the Joseph Rosen Foundation Inc., and Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1992: The Metropolitan Museum Annual Report (1991–92), p. 37; C. A. Picón, “Carved Ambers,” Recent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1991–1992: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 50, no. 2 (Fall 1992): 10; , pp. 295, 473, no. 339.

    The bracelet pendant worn by the male figure on the Etruscan stone sarcophagus of a couple from Vulci, now in Boston (Museum of Fine Arts 86.145), appears to be either a shark’s tooth or a “flint.”

  21. The most frequent form of demons is that of a hybrid or monster, and the demonic “frequently serves as a classificatory marker that is part of a larger system of boundaries used to express or reinforce a society’s values”: , p. 362. “The demon is situated between two taxa that are considered mutually exclusive: the hybrid nature of demons, noted by Smith, is a form of this”: , p. 363. Johnston cites J. Z. Smith, “Towards Interpreting Demonic Powers in Hellenistic and Roman Antiquity,” Augsteig und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.16.1 (1978): 425–39, who therein develops the precepts of M. Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 1966).
  22. See , p. 430, on the unworked pieces in the Archaic votive deposit. See n. 126 above for reference to amber and resins in a tomb at Cerveteri.


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