From Antiquity to Eternity

Amber

I love books that deepen our understanding of one particular material, and so when I met dr. Rachel King briefly early in 2022 and she told me she was finishing a book on amber, I was excited! And rightly so: Amber. From Antiquity to Eternity is a most engaging and important discussion of all things amber.

 

What stands out from the first lines is how very well this book is written. It is accessible, relatable, easy to follow, but by no means simple. The volume explores the world of amber in great detail and with obvious knowledge. Given the amount of information and the complexity of the topics presented, clarity of writing is of great importance: you will enjoy the lucid and engaging style of Dr. King!

Amber discusses amber from a great many angles. In eight chapters, the past, present and future of this material that has enticed humans for millennia are presented. The first of these deals with definitions: what is amber, where is it found, what different types exist? In this chapter, the wide reach of this book becomes apparent. Themes like ecosystems, the science behind investigating amber and research angles yet to be pursued all are discussed. The next chapter picks up on this theme of research in presenting what earlier scholars believed amber to be. This results in a delightful overview of legends and myths, some of which may reflect actual archaeological finds – and with that, the next chapter on the use of amber artefacts by humans begins.

This focuses mainly on Europe and China, and contains a great overview of amber finds from prehistory and the early Middle Ages. The following chapter picks up the narrative in later periods and highlights the amber trade in all its aspects. How and where to find amber is followed up upon by the economic, political and social aspects of the amber industry. An excursion to the Dominican Republic shows the harsh reality of amber mining, and as such makes us reflect on not just past monopolies on the mining and selling of amber, but also of the present and future of the amber industry. The amber industry is fraught with illegal and unsafe extraction and trade: just one example is how in 2015, 90% of the amber from Ukraine has been extracted without permission (p. 94). This book certainly gets you thinking on the darker sides of those pretty amber jewellery items that are offered for sale far and wide.

It will come as no surprise that this material, that has played such an important part in trade networks and political power plays, has been imitated as well. I am obviously aware that amber is widely faked, but I did not know how far back this went – did you know a recipe to imitate amber existed in China some 1,800 years ago, and that imitations of amber have been found in Spain that date back 4,000 years? And there is so much more involved in imitations: from smell to inclusions, from weight to colour – and increasingly innovative and scientific ways to expose forgeries.

The chapter on jewellery is a varied introduction in the many forms amber is worn as adornment. That is not just as personal adornment, but also as precious objects to show wealth and status, such as handles, mouthpieces or inlays. In this chapter the colonial use of amber as commodity is addressed, and its fragrant capacities and its meaning in ritual are touched upon as well. This is a dazzling and kaleidoscopic portrait of the use of amber, which is continued in the next chapter on artworks in amber. The final chapters deals with lost amber in again a variety of angles: not just actual lost pieces, but also the loss of status and knowledge. In this chapter, the role of private and public collections in preserving amber surfaces. As many pieces with spectacular inclusions find their way into private collections, scientists may not always have access to study these (p. 217) – and studying amber and its eternal world within from a scientific perspective is relevant for not just our past, but our future as well. (so if you do have a collection: please give some thought on how to pass your collection on to the future)

The focus of this beautifully illustrated book is mainly on Europe and Asia. The use and meaning of amber in other parts of the world are only touched upon in a few instances, but that does not diminish the relevance of this book. What makes Amber so important is its wide scope. It places amber not just in an art historian or historical context, but also in a social, environmental and humanitarian context. Throughout the book, attention is called to the ethical and sustainability challenges with amber, the knowledge that can be gained from it about our climate and planet, and the inevitable choices that present themselves. The attractive way in which the author presents an accessible overview of the history and uses of amber as well as serious food for thought in one fluid narrative is rare, and I enjoyed every page of this book. Possibly the most powerful line I read is the last one, in which past and future of our planet meet: I highly recommend reading this book, as it will not only tell you everything you would want to know about amber itself, but also eminently shows the importance of our choices in studying and treating it for humanity – which stretches so far as our very survival.

Amber. From Antiquity to Eternity, by Rachel King, 2022.

272 pp., full-colour, in English. Published by Reaktion Books

Available online and with the publisher.

I purchased the book in the British Museum.