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The History and Cultural Significance of Raw Baltic Amber

raw amber- History & Cultural Significance

The warm rich colours and semi-transparent qualities of amber have attracted people for thousands of years. Not only is amber beautiful to look at, it also has potential medicinal qualities that have been used for centuries for health and healing purposes. Here’s a closer look at the place of amber in our history and culture. 

What is amber?

Amber is often referred to as a gemstone, but in fact it’s not a stone, but a type of hardened resin that is composed of dead organic matter from trees, plants and insects. The regions surrounding the Baltic Sea in northern Europe are particularly rich in amber, and it has been highly prized for thousands of years, not just for its appearance but also its healing powers.

The story begins over 40 million years ago, when the area was covered with dense forests. As the landscape evolved, the resin from millions of trees was carried by rivers and streams towards the sea, where it accumulated in the world’s largest deposits around the Baltic coastline of Europe. 

Baltic amber has some unique characteristics that set it apart from other types of amber. It will often contain tiny hairs that are thought to be the remains of the male flowers of oak trees. It may also contain tiny pyrite crystals, and sometimes a white coating can be visible on some of the particles with the amber, which are thought to be insect secretions.

Amber becomes negatively charged when friction is applied, which produces static electricity that can attract passing lightweight objects such as stray fluff or dried grass. The Greeks coined the word elektron to describe this phenomenon, and it became one of the earliest forms of experimental research into electricity. 

Amber is a relatively soft material, which explains why it has proved to be enduringly popular for producing delicate items such as bead necklaces and bracelets, and carved pendants and amulets. The colour of amber may change over time. depending on the levels of oxygen exposure. 

The use of Baltic amber in history and folklore

Archaeological investigations have found that Baltic amber was used to make bead necklaces, amulets and other ornamental items as far back as the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Amber has been found in items buried with Egyptian pharaohs, suggesting that it was valuable material associated with power and mythology.

Amber was also used by the Vikings to carve symbolic animal shapes that have been found buried with armoury and clothing. It has been suggested that ancient people intuitively understood the special powers of amber because it is 100 per cent the product of once living organisms, and it was closely associated with the elements of earth, air, fire and water.

Amber extracts were used from the era of the ancient Greeks up until the Middle Ages and beyond for medicinal purposes. These include soothing anxiety, healing wounds and infections, brightening the skin, and easing the pain of arthritic conditions. 

Amber was widely traded throughout Europe and East Asia, which led to the development of ‘The Amber Road.’ This is a network of ancient trade routes that spread outwards from the Baltic regions and towards Rome, Egypt, and beyond. 

It was not only in demand for its attractive appearance, but also because of the instinctive understanding of its healing powers. The negative electric charge of amber was not fully understood, but it was a source of wonder and gave rise to the view that amber was a magical substance, and it was imbued with a mythological and religious significance. 

In some cultures, amber was associated with the sun and it was thought that it brought good fortune and could ward off evil spirits. This may have been because clear polished amber with a convex surface can concentrate the sun’s rays, and it may have been used as a burning lens. 

Modern uses of amber

Amber is still highly sought after for its warm colours, which range from light yellow to deep golds and oranges, and can vary within a single piece of amber. Part of the fascination is that you may be able to see traces of the original insects or other organic matter that has become fossilised with the resin.

Polished amber is widely used to make jewellery and ornaments, and also as a scent extract for a wide range of products, from candles to perfumes and cosmetics.  

Baltic amber has an unusually high concentration of a substance called succinic acid, which modern science has suggested is a natural pain reliever. It is thought that by wearing amber next to the skin and gently warming it through body heat, the succinic acid is released in small quantities and absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream.

Some people find that this has a soothing effect, helping to calm anxiety and relieve pain. It has been discovered that it is a particularly effective way to bring relief to a teething baby, and it has been used as a traditional folklore remedy for distressed and fretful infants for centuries.

Now that modern science has revealed the facts behind the folklore, amber is once again in demand for its natural healing properties. For example, raw amber teething necklaces are now a popular way to help your baby through what may be difficult times. The necklace is worn directly next to the skin to release the succinic acid.

Teething necklaces are not intended to be chewed, and the baby should be supervised at all times while they are wearing it. The necklace is a therapeutic product and not a toy or an ornament, although it can be retained as a keepsake and given to the child to wear when they are old enough.