Amber networks

A path of gold from sea to sea

Logistical thinking, investment skills and a readiness to take risks are basic tools of today’s entrepreneur. But such prerequisites for success in business are by no means new. As early as the Bronze Age, some 3,500 years before our time, enterprising people maximized profits by engaging in trade, and doing so across distances that now seem almost inconceivable. One material above all promised sizable margins in northern Europe, an area otherwise relatively poor in natural resources: amber.

Golden yellow amber was the engine of the flourishing economy in early Bronze Age Europe. (Image: Stephan Zengerle)

Written records on amber and its extensive occurrence along the northern European coast go back a long way. A travelogue by the Greek savant Pytheas, who purportedly sailed to a number of North Sea islands and also found amber there, dates from around 340 B.C.E. Pytheas was the first to offer the scientific explanation that amber was in fact petrified tree resin; he called it “electron”. Our term electricity is a derivative: amber can acquire a static charge from friction and thus magnetically attract particles of dust and fluff. In classical Greece, in any case, these buoyant and combustible “stones” were deeply embedded in mythology as “tears of the gods” and applied as remedies for diverse ailments. To this day amber necklaces are popularly believed to bring analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits.

The utilization of amber is much older than Greek antiquity, however. During the Neolithic period, ca. 5,500 B.C.E., amber was fashioned into amulets and beads in northern Europe – and became a top-selling export. It has been found in settlements, graves and at sacrificial sites dating from as early as the Bronze Age, ca. 2,200-800 B.C.E. Like pearls on a string, these finds trace a route from the coast of the Baltic Sea through Central Germany and Bavaria, across Alpine passes such as the Brenner (named after Bernstein, the German word for amber) all the way to Mycenae in modern Greece. From there it was shipped to Syria and Egypt.

Amber discovered north of the Alps allows the reconstruction of specific trade routes. These finds include the deposits (weighing several hundred kilograms) in Wroclaw-Patrynice in Poland, several sacrificial hoards in the vicinity of Halle in central Germany, the so-called Ingolstadt collier of some 3,000 amber beads, and a trove from the Bronze Age hill settlement near Bernstorf in Bavaria displaying Mycenaean characters and a facial image.

There is evidence of an ancient trade route in the Mediterranean area as well. Wherever amber comes to light, it seems to have been a luxury item for the privileged and prosperous. There are amber chains in the famous royal tombs of Mycenae. Amber beads were part of the cargo – along with goods from Cyprus, Syria and Greece – of a richly laden merchant vessel that sank near Uluburun off the Turkish coast 3,300 years ago. A royal tomb near Qatna in Syria yielded a lion’s head carved from the petrified resin. And earrings with amber beads were found in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. Laboratory tests prove that nearly all those finds involve amber from the North and Baltic Seas!

As early as the Bronze Age, people had found ways of covering long distances overland and establishing trading links. (Image: AmberPieces.)

For the route from Kaliningrad, the area of the largest amber deposits, to Mycenae, the Mediterranean's central market during the Bronze Age, Google Maps yields the following data. A car or truck needs about 28 hours to cover the 2,765 km. On foot the route is somewhat shorter, only 2,333 km but takes a lot longer – almost 500 hours walking at five kilometres per hour. And Google warns: “Use caution – may involve sections not suited for walking.” What must things have been like in prehistoric times!

Although thoroughfares existed in Germany even then (recognizable to this day as defiles cut deep into the landscape), on which plodding ox-drawn carts transported diverse goods, most of the traders will have been travelling on foot. Long distances may have been covered by some individuals or merchant groups, but today’s research conjectures that there was probably a network of trading posts where commodities exchanged hands – each time, no doubt, at a somewhat higher price.

As an easily transported and profitable luxury article, amber was only one of many goods that were traded from north to south or vice-versa. And the travelling salesmen had more than their wares in tow: they also brought the latest news, scientific discoveries, religious views and innovative techniques and technologies – in other words, ideas. The most sought-after goods were naturally salt and the rare metallic element tin – from one of its few known sources in Cornwall. Tin was traded via diverse routes all the way to Mycenae and the Mediterranean region, where it was urgently needed to make the novel – and very effective – bronze weaponry.

Perhaps access to the tin deposits in the North was even the key to the military supremacy of Mycenae and its allies in the Trojan War. At any rate, it endowed the city with the enormous wealth still evident today from its impressive ruins.

The North, on the other hand, profited from the influx of copper mined in the Alpine foothills, along with the innovations in weaponry: swords like the two found together with the celestial disk of Nebra in Saxony-Anhalt and modelled on southern archetypes had helped to cement the power of the central European rulers. Their gravesites, incidentally, also contain gold stemming from deposits in Nubia on the Nile.

Amber was the growth engine behind the economic boom in Bronze Age Europe. And around 50 C.E., at the time of the Roman Empire, the now partly fortified and much improved “Amber Road” was firmly established as an economic corridor. Emperor Nero sent an emissary to the Baltic region to acquire the precious fossil, with which the notorious autocrat wanted to enhance his gladiatorial games: the sand in the amphitheatre consisted of pure amber dust.


Dr. Timo ibsen, born in 1972, is an archaeologist.

Share article

Similar topics