A yellow or yellowish brown translucent fossil
plant resin derived from coniferous trees. It is not a mineral
but an organic compound that often encases fossil insects,
pollen, and other objects. It is capable of taking on a fine polish
and is therefore widely used as an ornamental jewelry
piece and is also used for making beads, pipe mouthpieces, or
bookshelf oddities. Amber is found in many places, including
soils, clays, and lignite beds. It is well known from locations
including the shores of the Baltic Sea and parts of the
Dominican Republic. Amber contains high concentrations of
succinic acid (a crystalline dicarboxylic acid, with the formula HOOCCH2CH2COOH), and has highly variable C:H:O
ratios. Amber of Oligocene age seems particularly abundant,
although it is known from as old as the Cretaceous and
includes all ages since sap-producing trees have proliferated
on Earth.
Many species of fossil insects and plants have been identified
in amber, particularly from the spectacular amber
deposits found along the southeastern shores of the Baltic
Sea. There, yellow, brown, orange, and even blue amber is
rich in contained fossils, though most of the amber was
mined by the end of Roman times. Amber has retained a sort
of mystical quality since early times, probably because it has
some unusual properties. Amber stays warm whereas minerals
often feel cool to the touch, and amber burns giving off a
scent of pine sap (from which it is derived). Even more
astounding to early people was that when rubbed against
wool or silk, amber becomes electrically charged and gives
off sparks. This feature led the early Greeks to call amber
“electron.” Many theories were advanced for the origin of
amber, ranging from tears of gods to solidified sunshine. The
origin of amber was first appreciated by Pliny the Elder, who,
in his famous work Historia Naturalis (published in C.E. 77),
suggested that amber is derived from plants.
The Romans mined the amber deposits of the Baltic Sea
because they thought amber had medicinal qualities that
enabled it to ward off fever, tonsillitis, ear infections, and
poor eyesight.
Decorative amber has been used for burial rituals and to
ward off evil spirits for thousands of years, and in Europe it
has been found in graves as old as 10,000 years. Amber was
widely transported on the ancient silk roads and in ancient
Europe, where figurines, beads, and other decorative items
were among the most valuable items in the markets.
Further Reading
Zahl, P. A. “Golden Window on the Past.” National Geographic
152, no. 3 (1977): 423–435.
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