Amber and other unusual materials such as jade, obsidian and rock crystal have attracted interest as raw materials for the manufacture of decorative items since Late Prehistory and, indeed, amber retains a high value in present-day jewellery.
‘Baltic’ amber from Scandinavia is often cited as a key material circulating in prehistoric Europe, but in a study published in PLOS ONE researchers have found that amber from Sicily was travelling around the Western Mediterranean as early as the 4th Millennium BC—at least 2,000 years before the arrival of any Baltic amber in Iberia.
According to lead author Dr. Mercedes Murillo-Barroso of the Universidad de Granada, “The new evidence presented in this study has allowed the most comprehensive review to date on the provision and exchange of amber in the Prehistory of Iberia. Thanks to this new work, we now have evidence of the arrival of Sicilian amber in Iberia from at least the 4th Millennium BC.”
“Interestingly, the first amber objects recovered in Sicily and identified as being made from the local amber there (known as simetite) also date from the 4th Millennium BC, however, there is no other evidence indicating direct contact between Sicily and Iberia at this time.”
“Instead, what we do know about are the links between the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa. It is plausible that Sicilian amber reached Iberia through exchanges with North Africa. This amber appears at southern Iberian sites and its distribution is similar to that of ivory objects, suggesting that both materials reached the Iberian Peninsula following the same or similar channels.”
Senior author Professor Marcos Martinón-Torres, of the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge adds, “It is only from the Late Bronze Age that we see Baltic amber at a large number of Iberian sites and it is likely that it arrived via the Mediterranean, rather than through direct trade with Scandinavia.”
“What’s peculiar is that this amber appears as associated with iron, silver and ceramics pointing to Mediterranean connections. This suggests that amber from the North may have moved South across Central Europe before being shipped to the West by Mediterranean sailors, challenging previous suggestions of direct trade between Scandinavia and Iberia.”
Murillo-Barroso concludes, “In this study, we’ve been able to overcome traditional challenges in attempts at assigning corroded amber to a geological source. These new analytical techniques can be used a reference to identify Sicilian amber, even from highly deteriorated archaeological samples.”
“There are still unresolved issues to be investigated in the future—namely exploring the presence of amber in North African contexts from the same time period and further researching the networks involved in the introduction and spread of Baltic amber in Iberia and the extent to which metals or other Iberian commodities were provided in return.”
‘Amber in prehistoric Iberia: New data and a review’ is published in PLOS ONE
NovoScriptorium: The above mentioned paper can be found here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0202235
The interested reader might want to have a look at the following published papers, too:
1. ‘Amber Sources and Trade in the Prehistory of the Iberian Peninsula‘, by Mercedes Murillo-Barroso and Marcos Martinon-Torres.
Abstract: The use of amber is documented in the Iberian peninsula since the Palaeolithic. The procurement and trade of this fossil resin has often been considered in discussions of long-distance trade and the emergence of social complexity, but so far no comprehensive view of the Iberian evidence has been produced to allow a more overarching interpretive model. This paper presents the Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) characterization of archaeological amber from three Iberian prehistoric sites: a necklace recovered from the megalithic site of Palacio III (Almade ́n de la Plata, Sevilla), a pommel from PP4Montelirio (Valencina de la Concepción, Sevilla), and a necklace from the Muricecs de Cellers cave(Llimiana, Pallars Jussà, Lleida). Based on these new data and a review of the literature, we present an overview that outlines fluctuations in the use of amber since the Upper Palaeolithic and demonstrates long-distance amber exchange connecting Iberia with northern Europe and the Mediterranean region since the Chalcolithic period at least. We discuss changes in the origins and cultural use of amber and their implications for the consolidation of trade networks.
2. ‘Evidence of amber in Bronze Age Sicily: local sources and the Balkan Mycenaean connection, in between the Aegean and the Baltic seas Prehistory across borders‘, by Massimo Cultraro
Abstract: Amber artefacts found in prehistoric Sicily have been the subject of several studies in the last decade, the most systematic ones by C.W. Beck in 1993 and P. Szacki in 1999. These offer a most significant contribution to the problem of the identification of Sicilian amber or simetite, and to establishing the spectroscopic characteristics of the fossil resins, but little attention has been given to the archaeological context of these artefacts.
There is a need for a comprehensive and systematic study of archaeological amber finds in Sicily, whether reported in the literature or stored in Museums and in private collections. Moreover, many artefacts in literature labelled as amber need to be correctly identified. Finally, the identification of Sicilian amber implies an accurate inventory of natural occurrences and related fossil resins deposited in Mineralogical Museums and classified as genuine simetite.
An attempt to illuminate the evidence of the amber artefacts in the Sicily of the 2nd millennium BC imposes an interpretative process based on successive levels of investigation, starting from the status of the research.
3. ‘The use of different amber sources in Italy during the Bronze Age: new archaeometric data‘, by Ivana Angelini & Paolo Bellintani
Abstract: The production of amber ornaments occurred inItaly during the Eneolithic (E)–Early Bronze Age (EBA), al-though very few beads from the Italian peninsula have beenfound and analysed. The number of data available for prove-nience study of Bronze Age ambers is larger, but still a precisepicture of when and to what extent the local sources of amberwere exploited is lacking. In the present work, 22 amber findsfrom six Sicilian sites have been studied and analysed byinfrared spectroscopy, in particular with DRIFT (diffuse re-flectance infrared Fourier transformed) analyses. The ambersamples are dated between the Eneolithic and the FinalBronzeAge–Early Iron Age and are from the collections of the P. OrsiMuseum, in Syracuse (Sicily). The data show that onlysimetite was used in South Italy in the Late Eneolithic (LE)–EBA. In the Bronze Age, the exploitation of simetite showsdifferent intensity in different chronological phases. The re-sults are discussed in comparison with the information avail-able for coeval European ambers.