By Ashley Bailey
, Monday, July 31, 2006 12:00 AM
Amber is fossilized tree sap which often serves as a tomb for various flora and fauna—many of which are extinct. Some of these perfectly preserved life forms are tens of millions years old.
Until about a decade ago, it was believed that the oldest and largest deposits of this organic gem were found in a vast, vanished forest area covering what is now Finland, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia. It was also widely believed that amber was produced by ancient evergreens.
But nowadays gemologists think amber found in far-flung places like Burma and the Dominican Republic may be just as old (up to 70 million years) as what is called Baltic amber. What’s more, it may have been produced by trees other than evergreen antecedents.
Unlike other fossilized organic gems which metamorphize from wood or bone into stone, amber remains essentially the same substance as when it first flowed down tree trunks. Long burial in the ground has hardened and stabilized it.
Amber is as important to botanists and biologists as it is jewelers. By studying plants, insects and even animals found perfectly preserved in it, they can reconstruct our planet’s past. More than 1,000 species of insect and crustacea have been found in amber.
THE FIRST GEM?
Because amber needs no cutting and polishing and can be used as is or with minimal fashioning, it is one of the first known gems. Archaeologists have found many amber discs in graves dating as far back as the early Stone Age. Often these discs have designs and symbols that suggest the sun—to which this gem was frequently likened.
From the Stone Age through the Iron Age, amber was the most popular gem among European and Mediterranean peoples. Amber reached it height of popularity in Rome. Indeed, Pliny, the famous naturalist who lives during the reign of Emperor Nero on the first century A.D., reported that a tiny amber figurine cost more than a full-grown healthy slave. Demand for amber was so great at this point in Roman history that Nero developed trade with the Germanic tribes of northern Europe who then supplied most of the world’s amber.
With the advent of Christianity and the emphasis on a less materialistic life, amber found its primary use as prayer beads. When European demand for prayer beads slackened off in the early 16th century, amber prayer beads were simply shipped to the Middle East where they proved very popular with Muslims.
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