Like silk, amber was once considered so valuable that it earned a namesake trade route. Stretching from the Baltic coast across Bohemia to the Danube—then forking on to Greece, Italy, the Black Sea, and beyond to Asia Minor—the Amber Route dates from the Bronze Age, when merchants exchanged the semi-precious stone for ceramics, glassware, copper, and coins of silver and gold. In turn, amber was used to make jewelry and decorative pieces, perfumes and folkloric potions.
Amber, which has been produced in the Baltic region since Neolithic times, displays a number of distinctive characteristics. Created from the fossilized resin of coniferous pines some 40 million years ago, the stone appears in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and degrees of transparency. It crackles and smokes when placed in fire, eventually becoming soft and decomposing. It floats in salty water, but sinks in fresh. Rubbing amber creates static electricity; flames produce the smell of burning pine. It is warm to the touch, and some pieces display perfectly preserved insects within.
Ancients considered such qualities to be magical, and bestowed the stone with supernatural powers. Amber items were used in primitive rituals; amulets were worn for protection and good luck, to get pregnant, and to heal ailments. Myths grew around the teardrop shape of many stones: Sophocles said they were tears shed over dead hero Meleager, while Lithuanians speak of the sea goddess Jurate, who mourned her mortal beloved Kastitis. One Baltic legend tells of the Gauya Bird that kept an amber necklace in its nest, each bead holding a different living picture more breathtaking that the next.
While amber may not have a living picture inside (fossilized insects not withstanding), the stone itself is considered by scientists to be alive, since its metamorphosis is not yet complete. Alternative medicine uses its electromagnetic energy to relive symptoms of arthritis and bronchitis, treat infections, and enhance the immune system.
To view Baltic amber in person, join our Best of the Baltic expedition.