December 16th – Amber

The joy of having and wearing beautiful and shining objects seems to have been with us humans throughout the ages. I personally am very fond of amber. Every time I travel, I go to local markets or thrift shops to see if I can find some nice amber items. I am in fact so fond of amber that I named one of my cats amber in Norwegian, which is Rav. Perhaps you have a piece of jewelry or a decorative item made of amber at home?

Unpolished amber stones
Photo borrowed from Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Amber is a hard and brittle fossil resin, most often yellow or brown in color and completely or partially translucent. The resin comes from conifers, especially from Pinus succinifera, which grew in the Baltic area in the Tertiary, about 20-50 million years ago. For the amber to form, the resin must end up in the ocean and lie there for at least 30–50 million years. After this long period under pressure, without oxygen, the plant sap changes and the oil content is reduced and the amber is formed.

Amber has always been a valuable material. The finest amber is supposedly the amber that is washed up on the beach, since this is usually cleaner than the amber that is dug up from the ground. But, unlike other materials, unclean amber is often more valuable, since the impurities often consist of encapsulated insects or needles from trees. These insects and remains are millions of years old which is kind of mind-blowing.

In northern Europe, amber is found furthest southeast in the Baltic Sea; in Lithuania and Prussia, as well as on the beaches along the Danish North Sea coast. Denmark’s oldest natural amber find is about 170 million years old.

Pendant (T10989) found at Aukra, dated to the Neolithic period.

Photo: Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Already during the Stone Age, people used different materials as jewelry to make an impression on other people. Amber seems to be first used in the Neolithic, the Late Stone Age. From this time, numerous finds originate in the countries around the Baltic Sea, in the British Isles and in Central Europe. Both jewelry and small human and animal figures has been found, and it is believed that amber was used as a medium of exchange.

Pendant (T13847) found at Aukra, dated to the Neolithic period.

Photo: Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

In Norway, amber was especially popular in the Neolithic, 4th and 3rd millennium BC. Since amber does not accure naturally in Norway, the amber must have been brought here by the help of humans taking it with them. Perhaps the amber was valuable gifts between relatives, friends or allies. This means that they came to Norway at the same time as the agriculture gradually gained a foothold in the country. Like the agriculture, amber itself was something that came to Norway through connections with people from southern areas where the amber existed. Other types of objects, such as elaborate forms of axes and daggers made of flint and other stone, also came to Norway the same way as the amber. Craft traditions also came from the south during this period, such as the art of making ceramics, spinning fibers into thread and perhaps also the production of textiles.

In all, a couple of hundred finds of amber from the Neolithic period have been found in Norway. Most commonly, amber is found in connection with graves, in landfills around settlements or as loose finds. However graves from the Stone Age are quite rare in Norway, in contrast to our neighboring countries Sweden and Denmark. Still, there are some. In a burial chamber made of large stone slabs, a dolmen, at Holtnes in Hurum, they found amber objects that had belonged to a necklace consisting of several objects made of amber. This type of necklace is known from Denmark and northern Germany, but in the Norwegian context this is the only one found in Norway. The burial was dated to 3630–3350 BC.

One of the most beautiful and rare Norwegian amber objects has been found in Åfjord in Sør-Trøndelag. A pendant shaped like a bear made of amber was found along with four other pendants made of amber.

Pendants (T2667) found at Åfjord. The middle one is suppose to be a bear.

Photo: Per E. Fredriksen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Also from later periods, amber is sometimes found in graves and such. During the Merovingian period there are a few beads and spindle whorls. During the Viking age, traders would bring with them wax, honey, leather, fur, down, horns, antlers, amber, iron, soapstone and tusks from walruses to trade. Such things from the north were very valuable elsewhere. Back home they brought slaves, silver, gold, jewelry, beads, glass, spices, swords, armor, drinking vessels, walnuts, silk and other fine textiles.

In the pictures below you can see different beads made of amber, dating from the Iron age.

From left to right:
Photo 1: T26325:1 – Amber bead from Overhalla, Iron age
Photo 2: T19511 – Amber bead from Steinkjer, Viking age
Photo 3: T4976 – Amber bead from Rennebu, Iron age
Photo 4: T1697 – Amber bead from Steinkjer, Viking age
Photo 5: T8293 – Amber beads from Vega, Viking age
Photo 6: T15076 – Amber bead from Vega, Late Roman period

The six pictures above is taken by Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Photo 1: T19853 – Spindle whorl made of amber from Trælvik, Viking period
Photo 2-3: T14510 – Gaming pieces from amber from Stjørdal, late Iron age
Photo 4: T28051 – Mount with amber details from Hegg, Late Iron age
Photo 5: T15313:b – Pendant with a animal from Frøya, Merovingian period
Photo 6: T15313:c – Glass and amber beads from Frøya, Merovingian period

Photos 1-3: Ole Bjørn Pedersen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo 4: Åge Hojem, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo 5: Per E. Fredriksen, NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet, CC BY-SA 4.0

Dating amber can sometimes be problematical, especially when amber objects is found randomly and by themselves, what archaeologists call “loose finds” or stray finds. Amber can only be dated by comparing it with other objects from the same layers and contexts.

Kulturhistorisk museum
Store norske leksikon

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