Where Is Amber Found?

Deposits of amber occur throughout both the Old and the New Worlds, and many varieties are recognized. Of the many kinds of amber found in the Old World, the most plentiful today, as in antiquity, is Baltic amber (figure 12), or succinite (so called because it has a high concentration of succinic acid). This early Tertiary (Upper Eocene–Lower Oligocene) amber comes mainly from around the shores of the Baltic Sea, from today’s Lithuania, Latvia, Russia (Kaliningrad), Poland, southern Sweden, northern Germany, and Denmark. The richest deposits are on and around the Samland peninsula, a large, fan-shaped area that corresponds to the delta region of a river that once drained an ancient landmass that geologists call Fennoscandia. This ancient continent now lies beneath the Baltic Sea and the surrounding land. Although this area has the largest concentration of amber in the world, it is a secondary deposition. Amazingly, the fossil resin “was apparently eroded from marine sediments near sea level, carried ashore during storms, and subsequently carried by water and glaciers to secondary deposits across much of northern and eastern Europe” over a period of approximately twenty million years.34 In antiquity, most amber from the Baltic shore was harvested from shallow waters and beaches where it had washed up (once again, millennia later), especially during autumn storms that agitated the seabeds. It was only in the early modern period that amber began to be mined. With the introduction of industrial techniques, huge amounts have been extracted since the nineteenth century. It is estimated that up to a million pounds of amber a year was dug from the blue earth layer of the Samland peninsula in the first decades of the twentieth century.35

Baltic amber, L: 2.2 cm (78 in.). Private collection.
Figure 12
Baltic amber, L: 2.2 cm (78 in.). Private collection. Photograph © Lee B. Ewing.

Other kinds of amber used by ancient Mediterranean peoples have been identified with sources in today’s Sicily,36 Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.37 In addition to northern European sources, ancient accounts mention amber from Liguria, Scythia,38 Syria, India, Ethiopia, and Numidia. However, of the varieties used in antiquity and known today, only succinite, or Baltic amber, is found in the large, relatively sturdy, jewelry-grade pieces such as were used for the sizable objects of antiquity, like the pre-Roman pendants of this catalogue, or for the complex carvings, vessels, and containers of Roman date. Small pieces of amber and the wastage of larger compositions could have been used for tiny carvings and other purposes. Non-jewelry-grade amber would also have been employed in inlay, incense and perfume, pharmaceuticals, and varnish, as is still the case in the modern period. Burmite (found in Burma, now Myanmar) and some amber from China, types also found in large, high-grade pieces, have long histories of artistic and other uses in Asia.39


  1. , p. 164.
  2. For the modern mining of Baltic amber, see the overview in , chap. 3.
  3. On Sicilian amber, see Trevisani in , p. 16; ; , p. 42; C. W. Beck and H. Harnett, “Sicilian Amber,” in , pp. 36–47; , pp. 1–2, 4; and . Pliny and the sources he consulted, including Theophrastus, discuss amber from Liguria. Ligurian deposits may indeed have been known in antiquity. Larger deposits may have been exhausted in antiquity. The ancient boundaries of Liguria include areas where non-jewelry-grade amber is known, as Trevisani maps. If it was dug up rather than originating in an oceanic or riverine source, it may not have had the same value. Moreover, the proximity of the material to its consumption point might have undermined its value. See n. 110 for more on amber’s value.
  4. In addition to the sources listed in n. 36, above, see J. M. Todd, “The Continuity of Amber Artifacts in Ancient Palestine: From the Bronze Age to the Byzantine,” in , pp. 236–46, and J. M. Todd, “Baltic Amber in the Ancient Near East: A Preliminary Investigation,” Journal of Baltic Studies 16, no. 3 (1985): 292–302. On Lebanese amber, see G. O. Poinar, Jr., and R. Milki, Lebanese Amber: The Oldest Insect Ecosystem in Fossilized Resin (Corvallis, OR, 2001), p. 15, who describe a few fist-sized pieces of “quite durable” Lebanese amber found in modern times, although generally Lebanese amber is collected in small, highly fractured pieces less than a centimeter in diameter. See also , pp. 35–36.
  5. On Scythian amber, see E. H. G. Minns, Greeks and Scythians: A Survey of Ancient History and Archaeology on the North Coast of the Euxine from the Danube to the Caucasus (1913; repr., New York, 1971), pp. 7, 440, with reference to Pliny, Natural History 33.161, 37.33, 37.40, 37.64, 37.65, and 37.119.
  6. The geological source of Ming- and Ching-dynasty amber carvings is not assured. The amber might have come from Myanmar (Burma) or possibly from European, “Syrian,” or Chinese sources. “China does have some large natural deposits of amber in Fushun, but these appear not to have been exploited” (, p. 194). See also B. Laufer, “Historical Jottings on Amber in Asia,” Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association 1 (1907): 3. On amber from Myanmar, see , p. 279: “Amber was collected from shallow mines in the Nagtoimow Hills in northern Burma and the major portion was sent to trade centers such as Mandalay and Mogaung … and then brought by traders to Yunnan province in China where it was used by Chinese craftsmen from as early as the first Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 8).” Langenheim draws from H. L. Chibber, The Mineral Resources of Burma (London, 1934). See also D. A. Grimaldi, M. S. Engel, and P. C. Nascimbene, “Fossiliferous Cretaceous Amber from Myanmar (Burma): Its Rediscovery, Biotic Diversity, and Paleontological Significance,” Novitates 3361 (March 26, 2002): 1–7; V. V. Zherikhin and A. J. Ross, “A Review of the History, Geology, and Age of Burmese Amber (Burmite),” Geology Bulletin 56, no. 1 (2000): 1–3; V. V. Zherikhin and A. J. Ross, “The History, Geology, Age and Fauna (Mainly Insects) of Burmese Amber, Myanmar,” in Bulletin of the Natural History Museum, ed. A. J. Ross (London, 2000); , p. 15; ; , pp. 40–42, 194–208; and S. S. Savkevich and T. N. Sokolova, “Amber-like Fossil Resins of Asia and the Problems of Their Identification in Archaeological Contexts,” in , pp. 48–50. In the annals of the Han and later dynasties, amber is mentioned repeatedly as one of the notable products of Roman Syria; see F. Hirth, China and the Roman Orient: Researches into Their Ancient and Mediaeval Relations as Represented in Old Chinese Records (Shanghai and Hong Kong, 1885), pp. 35–96.

    Pliny (Natural History 37.11) cites authors who attest to amber from Syria and India as well as to other sources east and south of Italy. Poinar and Milki, 2001 (n. 37, above), p. 77, suggest that many “nineteenth and twentieth century reports of amber finds in western Syria probably referred to localities within the confines of present-day Lebanon, since the latter had been a republic within the borders of Syria for a number of years.” For amber from the ancient Near East, see M. Heltzer, “On the Origin of the Near Eastern Archaeological Amber,” in Languages and Cultures in Contact, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 96, ed. K. van Lerberghe and G. Voet (Leuven, 1999), pp. 169–76; S. M. Chiodi, “L’ambra nei testi mesopotamici,” Protostoria e storia del ‘Venetorum Angulus’: Atti del XX Convegno di studi etruschi ed italici, Portogruaro, Quarto d’Altino, Este, Adria, 16–19 ottobre 1996 (Pisa and Rome, 1999); and J. Oppert, “L’Ambre jaune chez les Assyriens,” Recueil de travaux relatifs à la philologie et à l’archéologie à égyptiennes et assyriennes 21 (1880): 331ff.


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