The Production of Ancient Figured Amber Objects

As a result of unauthorized archaeological activity since at least the nineteenth century, a great number, perhaps the majority, of sixth-to-fourth-century B.C. figured ambers are undocumented or lack sure provenance. This places greater importance on works with solid documentation for a discussion of culture and meaning. It is often the case that findspot is equated with place of origin, and grave goods are associated with ownership by the deceased or assumed to be direct evidence of daily dress and customs. The existence of high-value objects such as amber and gold in elite graves must be considered in light of their role as ingredients in a larger network of cultural relationships. Amber and gold, incense and precious textiles were internationally recognized prestigious and valuable objects, suitable for exchange, gift giving, and status display. Not all objects were new. They may have been tokens of guest friendship, or heirlooms or funerary gifts from family or clan members or people with some other relationship. Such “antiques” may have been valued for their history, provenance, or established efficacy (sacral, magical, or medicinal). Celebrations of alliances, marriages, and other rituals were likely occasions for the gathering, exchange, special commissioning, and social display of such objects. Some ambers may have been highly prized prestige objects—treasures gained from purchase, plunder, or presentation—and were meant to be circulated within an aristocratic network. Emporia, palaces, or possibly sacred sites might support established as well as itinerant artisans. And the gifting of things, old and new, could not have been a rare occurrence in the pre-Roman period when amber reigned. Travel and travelers (for reasons of commerce, politics, religion, or celebration) meant gatherings of people at sanctuaries and “princely” centers, where high-status objects might be purchased or commissioned, and where jewelry or magic or medicine may have been procured. The “‘cultural clearing houses,’ the intermediate centers where goods and ideas were received, adapted, mixed—and passed on,”267 places such as Pithecoussai and Rhodes in earlier centuries, or a city such as Vulci in the sixth century B.C., are important examples to consider. The extent to which the existence of such centers resulted in a web of autonomous secondary routes—along with a whole range of other cultural outcomes268—demands our attention, especially with a mythic material such as elektron. An indigenous palatial center such as Braida di Serra di Vaglio (Potenza, Basilicata) is an Italic example of a place where the “circulation” of both objects and people, and interchange among foreigners and colonial Greeks and Etruscans and the indigenous population, might be found. Traders and makers of amber objects might include residents as well as itinerants.

It is important to say a word about style: the efficacy of pre-Roman ambers may have been determined in part by the resin’s assured provenance (from the north), by its form (it should follow established guidelines or a prescription), and by its appropriate style(s). The very duration of time-honored forms and style—the long life of Egyptian subjects and forms in amber, or the importance of Ionian- and Etruscan-looking ambers deep into the fourth century B.C.—underlines the conservative functions of figured ambers. It was seemingly important that works look as if they were made by, or followed the prescriptions of, Egyptians, Ionians, or Etruscans. This visual resemblance, perhaps a stamp of authenticity, may have assured their potency or “branded” the objects’ magic. In this way, the style, “a way of doing things,”269 is a culturally significant variable. In the case of amuletic ambers, the style can be said to play a critical role in defining the genuineness and efficacy of the objects. In addition, there appear to be prototypes—not only schemata, but actual models—that were followed for centuries. It is possible that certain works were on view for a long period, through public display in ceremonial circumstances or via circulation. If some works were family or clan heirlooms, they may have been valued for one or more reasons, economic, sacral, medical, or magical. To find individual style in a copy of a copy is a challenge indeed.

In a search for the artistic origins of some figured ambers, scholars have tended to look for individual hands, schools, and centers of production. Connoisseurship and archaeological sleuthing have identified master artisans. Much progress also has been made in siting some groups of objects, drawing them around schools or the hands of particular artisans, and there are undeniable stylistic connections between groups of carved ambers.270 However, there are many reasons to consider paradigms that move beyond individuals, workshops, and centers of manufacture. As touched on above, many students of figured ambers see an undeniable Etruscan connection in the subjects and “art” of these objects. Some emphasize Magna Graecian, Campanian, Lucanian, or other Italic elements. This author has long advocated for the Ionian, and even more specifically the Milesian, aspects of many amber pendants.271 Other scholars, notably Nuccia Negroni Catacchio, have charted well-stated arguments for several regional centers.272 Canosa is a good candidate for the fifth century B.C., as Angelo Bottini has argued.273 Armento is another.274

But why (and where in) these centers? Was there a religious site or sacred sanctuary there? A market? A venerable studio? A school of pharmacology? Raw materials and finished products were easily portable, and not only was the use of amber amulets pervasive, but the iconography of some types—the form of a detached head (figure 57), to cite the most numerous—was consistent over time. There is also evidence that carvings of different dates and styles could be buried together, as in the grave of the young girl of Tomb 102 at Braida di Vaglio.275

Lion’s Head spout or finial, Etruscan, 525–480 B.C. Amber, H: 1.9 cm (34 in.), W: 1.7 cm (23 in.), D: 2 cm (710 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 76.AO.81. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 34.
Figure 57
Lion’s Head spout or finial, Etruscan, 525–480 B.C. Amber, H: 1.9 cm (34 in.), W: 1.7 cm (23 in.), D: 2 cm (710 in.). Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, 76.AO.81. Gift of Gordon McLendon. See cat. no. 34.

The great potency of amber made it the province of healing specialists, too. Although it is possible that itinerant craftsmen produced the amber carvings of pre-Roman Italy, and that they did so in court settings, as has been proposed,276 these hypothetical models emphasize the craft and deemphasize the special function of figured amber objects in medicine, magic, and mourning.

The terms craftsman and artisan imply métier, instruction, apprenticeship or training, and the production of art. It must be kept in mind that amber is relatively soft and easy to work and was not, of necessity, the exclusive province of skilled artisans. While the Getty pendant Head of a Female Divinity or Sphinx (see figure 45) may be equal to the finest of contemporary temple dedications or cult imagery, many figured ambers are art only by modern definition. The material was the force behind its usage, and therefore the workers of amber might well have encompassed pharmacists and religious functionaries, including priests or priestesses, magicians, healers, seers, midwives, and sorceresses.277 Was an amber object an heirloom, a gift, an exchange object?278 Or was it produced and/or purchased at a time of crisis? What was most important about these objects was how well they worked: as social indicators, as prestige objects, as gifts, as items in transition rituals, as ornamentation, materia medica, and amulets. Knowledge of the incantations necessary to accompany them and their specific magical role as amulets was essential. Any analysis of how ambers functioned for the living and the dead needs first to consider who would have possessed such information.

In what activity was an amber involved? This question is especially important when it comes to the most long-lived and geographically widespread amulet types, of which a substantial number (early as well as late) are schematic in manufacture. The sixth-century B.C. female heads from Eretum, for example, are small and schematic, their features formed primarily by abrasion.279 Such is also the case with a number of crude heads in the Getty collection. Since both the material and the subjects of pre-Roman amber amulets suggest an association with healing, the protection of women, infants, and children, and the aversion of danger, some may have been acquired at the sanctuaries of healing divinities, where old traditions were kept alive or powerful images were on view in special settings or ceremonies. Some pieces may have been spoils, gifts, or dedications.

There is much to be learned about the making of power objects, jewelry, and amulets from Egypt and Mesopotamia, where the literary sources and the archaeological evidence are especially rich, and from the later Greek tradition of inscribed amulets, among the earliest of which were found in the south of Italy. With noninscribed amulets, the situation is more complicated and more open to misinterpretation. Nevertheless, information can be mined from earlier, concurrent, and later traditions. Especially valuable are ancient amulets with writing, which appear frequently in Roman times, as well as ancient handbooks with instructions on the preparation of rites and amulets. These reveal a great deal about the workings of amulets: the stated purpose, the ingredients, the time and place for performance, accompanying gestures, and the incantations themselves. For specific objects, however, we may never know the answer to the question “Was the preparation, inscription, or donning of the amulet conceived or enacted as a ritual act or in a purely perfunctory manner?”280

The differing possibilities for who made the amber pendant heads, and in what kind of context, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A female head pendant excavated at Lavello may be a local product, for it has formal connections with earlier Etruscan art, with the art of (Laconian) Taranto, and with local Italic production, as Maria-Cecilia D’Ercole has shown.281 Was it carved by a local artisan who offered up key elements of the image in her/his own style? What was the model? How old was it, and where was it seen? Or was it made by an itinerant who had absorbed a large visual vocabulary, sculptural repertoire, or pharmacopoeia—whatever the correct lexicon may be? And according to which traditions, and which kind of “instructions”? Another example might be a group of pendants in the form of frontal female heads in the British Museum, possibly found together at Armento, which some scholars believe are Campanian, or made under Campanian influence, as is Donald Strong’s opinion.282 In each of the two cases, the heads may have been produced at a sanctuary of the divinity represented in the amber, by a local carver as a commissioned good, by an itinerant, for the open market, or even as filled “prescriptions.” Relevant here are the critical questions Jean Turfa asks about offerings and exchange in Greek votive tradition: “The large number of terracottas manufactured from the same molds or workshops at sites like Kirrha, the staging port for Delphi, suggests seasonal production or supply from factory to sanctuary, and thus the sanctuary as the ‘retail’ supplier of votives.”283 These heads, like all amber amulets, were valuable in every sense, and their value may have depended in part on where or by whom they were made. And they were just the sort of thing to have accrued further value by being displayed, worn, or buried at a place distant from their manufacture. A carved amber or group of ambers may have been carried in the pouch of an itinerant artisan, trader, or healer. Before it played a role in a sanctuary or in the rituals of death, the amber may have been traded or gifted elsewhere, to be copied or remembered. Carved ambers may have had many lives and been involved in many activities. Made from a material as old as the earth, formed into deeply significant subjects only to be interred once again, these gems of the ages offer new windows onto the past.


  1. Ridgway 2000 (in n. 192, above), p. 236.
  2. Ibid., with reference to A. Peserico, “L’interazione culturale greco-fenicia,” in Alle soglie della classicità: Il Mediterraneo tra tradizione e innovazione; Studi in onore di Sabatino Moscati, ed. E. Acquaro, vol. 2 (Pisa and Rome, 1996), pp. 899–924.
  3. These ideas were articulated with the help of M. Hegmon, “Technology, Style, and Social Practices: Archaeological Approaches,” in The Archaeology of Social Boundaries, ed. M. T. Stark (Washington, DC, and London, 1998), pp. 264–79. “A way of doing something” is found on p. 265.
  4. See , p. 31. He argues convincingly that if the analogies he put forward are valid, “it leads to the conclusion that the bulk of the better pieces were made under the strong influences of Campanian art of the sixth century.” Strong thinks that Lucania was the center of such manufacture but does not rule out centers in Apulia. Others who have published strong arguments about other sites of manufacture are Russo 2005 (in n. 246, above); (with earlier bibl.); ; ; , pp. 284–85; , passim; , pp. 11–12; and , pp. 87–88.
  5. , pp. 52–69, convincingly argues for an Ionian working in Etruria for the Herakles and the Nemean Lion group of circa 530–500 B.C. in Paris (Bibliothèque nationale, Cabinet de Médailles, Fröhner 1146).
  6. This has also been done by a number of University of Milan students, noted by .
  7. , p. 12, has suggested several reasons for this but emphasizes the existence of a clientele capable of appreciating and acquiring luxury articles. Might the draw have been a temple, cult, shrine, or healer at Canosa or Armento (see n. 274)?
  8. On Armento as a center, see, most recently, A. Bottini, “Le ambre nella Basilicata settentrionale,” in , pp. 232–33.
  9. ; A. Bottini (pp. 541–48) and E. Setari (p. 644) in ; ; ; ; and E. Pica in , pp. 224–25, pls. 32–33. See also E. Greco, Archeologia della Magna Grecia (Rome, 1992).
  10. For the amber from Tomb 102, E. Setari summarizes in , p. 643: “Native craftsmanship can in no way be excluded, but they were probably part of a palace-based activity, the work of traveling craftsmen with various cultural origins.” E. Pica in , p. 224, hypothesizes that the amber objects “came from the shops of itinerant indigenous artisans who reworked both colonial Greek and Etruscan-Campanian models.” This idea is elaborated in . , pp. 11–12, proposes a modulated picture: the possibility of a fixed center of production at a major center and the existence of itinerants using acquired models (particularly aristocratic Greek ones) while introducing innovations. The types of drinking vessels in the Braida di Vaglio necropolis indicate the acculturation of Greek rituals of wine consumption alongside native traditions. For a recent note on this tomb, with the wine service as possible evidence of the Dionysian aspect of the burial, see . On the Greek customs of wine drinking and the adoption of the symposium in Italy, see A. Rathje, “The Adoption of the Homeric Banquet in Central Italy in the Orientalizing Period,” in Sympotica: A Symposium on the Symposium, ed. O. Murray (Oxford, 1990). The earliest representation from Italy of feasting while reclining is the Etruscan symposiast on the lid of a two-handled calyx vessel from Tomb 23 from the necropolis at Tolle, dating to circa 630–620 B.C. See G. Paolucci, ed., City Archaeological Museum of Thermal Waters: Chianciano Terme (Siena, 1997), fig. 90; and , p. 108.
  11. “A seer, or a healer of illnesses, or a carpenter who works on wood, or even an inspired singer,” named by Eumaios (Odyssey 17.381–87), are four kinds of high-ranking strangers, any one of which (theoretically) could have been involved in aspects of amulet construction. For discussion of the passage and the translation see . See also , pp. 41–87.
  12. discusses the figured ambers of two “princely” tombs at Melfi-Pisciolo as being older than their (second half of the fifth century B.C.) contexts.
  13. The Eretum pendants are from Tomb XIII: see P. Santoro, “Sequenza culturale della necropoli di Colle del Forno in Sabina,” 51 (1985): 13–37; and , p. 203. Santoro published Tomb XIII as a child’s grave (P. Santoro, “La necropolis di Colle del Forno,” in Civiltà arcaica dei Sabini nella valle del Tevere [Rome, 1973], pp. 39–44), but this is not certain per , p. 209, n. 1.
  14. D. Frankfurter, “Narrating Power: The Theory and Practice of the Magical Historiola in Ritual Spells,” in , p. 3.
  15. .
  16. , pp. 67–71, no. 44–3.
  17. J. M. Turfa, “Votive Offerings,” in , p. 108, n. 37. She cites J.-M. Luce, “Les terres cuites de Kirrha,” in Delphes: Centenaire de la “grande fouille” réalisée par l’École française d’Athènes (1892–1903), ed. J.-F. Bommelaer (Leiden, 1992), pp. 263–75; and J. Uhlenbrock, “Terracotta Figurines from the Demeter Sanctuary at Cyrene: Models for Trade,” in Cyrenaica in Antiquity, International Series 236, ed. G. Barker et al. (Oxford, 1985), pp. 297–304.


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