by Mateusz Zatonski
Amidst all this a silver river flows
Under crags by the waving reeds,
The far-flowing Vistula pours over marble pebbles,
Her head in a wreath of willows;
She divides into three at the coast,
Where boats toss gently, and like dolphins
On the water glimmering with gold
The shores shine with amber…
(Jan Kochanowski [1530-1584], The Pennant or Homage to Prussia)
In 1993 Steven Spielberg revealed to cinemagoers that amber can be stumbled upon most easily in a remote cave deep in the Dominican jungle (and if you’re lucky, it might even have some dinosaur DNA conserved inside- no matter that the dinosaurs lived millions of years before Dominican amber was formed). He might have convinced audiences worldwide, but he did not fool those fortunate enough to live on the rim of the Baltic Sea. For them, the Baltic will always be the true cradle of the stone ‘golden like the Sun’.
Amber has been a hallmark of Baltic art, culture and economy for centuries. The 18th century Amber Room of the Tsars, a gigantic chamber made entirely of amber, gold, and precious stones, was seen to be one the greatest achievements of Prussian craftsmanship, before it mysteriously went missing during World War II. Shops specialising in amber jewellery line the streets of tourist areas in Baltic capitals from Tallinn to Copenhagen. Even the brand-new stadium in Gdańsk, built for the 2012 European Football Cup, was designed to resemble a giant lump of Baltic amber.
No surprise then that when the news struck that the Baltic is sweeping up less amber every year onto its sandy shores, the local newspapers went into a state of near-hysteria. ‘It is the end of our national symbol and pride’, wrote the Gdańsk edition of Poland’s largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, in September 2006.
However, experts caution against such sensationalism. Michał Kosior, the director of the Gdańsk-based International Amber Association, explains that the smaller amount of amber collected by amber fishers in the recent years results from changing weather patterns and Baltic currents rather than due to depleting amber deposits. ‘In any case’, he tells Crossing the Baltic, ‘the vast majority of commercial Baltic amber comes from amber mines located in the Kaliningrad region of Russia, Poland, and even as far from the Baltic Sea as the Ukraine. Only a fraction is picked out straight from the water.’
Amber fisher at work.
Baltic amber is in essence fossilized resin of trees that has hardened and weathered over 40 million years ago. Its richest deposits stretch from the Jutland Peninsula (Denmark) to Sambia in present-day Kaliningrad (Russia). Throughout history, amber was one of Europe’s most sought-after luxury products. During Roman times it could be found in the houses of wealthy Roman patricians. Higher prices were paid for small amber amulets than for healthy slaves. Centuries later, Arab chroniclers described it as one of the most highly prized raw materials. Prophet Mohammed even wrote that a true believer’s prayer beads should be made of amber. Others attributed amber with magical properties and believed it to be a remedy for ailments ranging from a sore throat to rheumatism. In fact Martin Luther allegedly carried a piece of amber in his pocket as a protection against kidney stones.
The trade ‘Amber Roads’ that were established as a result of this demand for amber became for the Baltic tribes means of cultural and technological exchange with more advanced civilizations, boosting the development of the region. Today amber continues to bring in money, mostly from the pockets of tourists, for whom buying an amber souvenir is a key element of any trip to the Baltic region. Succinic acid obtained from amber is also used in the production of liqueurs, skin creams and other medicinal products.
The commercial potential of amber has brought fake copies on the market. From bakelite in 20th century Western Europe, to amber-coloured plastic in the Middle East today, fraudulent salesmen have been devising ever new ways of making their fortunes on bogus amber. However, equally ingenious methods have been developed to identify the fakes. Real amber should attract pieces of paper after it is rubbed. Unlike plastic copies, it will also remain unscathed if kept over a flame, and when heated it will emit the sweet smell of tree resin.
With its striking natural beauty, mythical medicinal properties, and romantic image, amber has become one of the most recognisable symbols of the Baltic region. And with the rumours of its depletion being largely unfounded, it will hopefully continue to serve as such for many decades to come.
Want to learn more about amber? See:
Neil Clark, Amber: Tears of the Gods (Glasgow: Dunedin Academic Press, 2010)
Janina Grabowska, Polish Amber (Warsaw: Interpress Publishers, 1983)
Barbara Kosmowska-Ceranowicz, Poland, the story of amber (Warsaw: Muza, 2006)
The Gdańsk Amber Museum- http://www.mhmg.gda.pl/international/?lang=eng&oddzial=4
The Swedish Amber Museum- http://www.brost.se/
The Amber Portal- http://www.amber.com.pl/en/
International Amber Association- http://www.amber.org.pl/en/index.php
Mateusz Zatonski is one of the editors at Crossing the Baltic and the magazine’s social media officer. He writes about national identity formation, Jewish history, Polish politics, immigration, federalism and film.