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Amber - Frozen Moments in Time


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Amber - Frozen Moments in Time

Amber has a deep fascination for man both as a gem and as a
chance to look back into the past with a remarkable clarity. Its
warm lustrous touch beguiles us and the remarkable inclusions
sometimes found within it captures our imagination.

Amber is found all over the world. This short narrative looks at
some aspects of amber which might interest both the casual and the
informed reader.

Formation of Amber

Amber begins as resin exuded from trees millions of years ago. All
known deposits of amber come from various tree species which are
now extinct. Baltic amber was produced by a tree called Pinites
succinifer, a tree sharing many characteristics of the currently
living species Pseudolarix. In appearance it would have looked
something similar to a pine or spruce tree.

The resin may have originally been used as a defensive mechanism
against insect infestation or fungal attack. Once released from
the tree the resin would begin to go through a number of stages in
order to become amber.

The first stage involved the slow evaporation of volatile oils.
The oils, called turpenes, could take anything from a 100 to a
1000 years to fully dissipate. Once completed the resin would
become harder and could then be called copal.

Columbia in South America has extensive deposits of copal which is
frequently sold as amber, but tests undertaken by G. Poinar have
shown that in some cases it is less than 250 years old. Madagascar
and Kenya also have highly fossiliferous copal mines. Their age is
likely to be roughly the same as the Colombian deposits, if not
younger.

Following the dispersal of the oils the next stage is the cross
chain linking of the molecular structure within the copal. Almost
a kind of polymerisation. This makes the copal harder and less
brittle. This second stage may take millions of years before the
process turns the copal into something approaching the structure
of amber.

It is speculated that either one or both of these stages in the
formation of amber must take place in an anaerobic environment, or
it may have to sustain a period of immersion in sea water. Amber
which is exposed to air for several years undergoes oxidation
which causes a distinct darkening and crusting of the gems
surface. If sustained over millions of years the amber can
fragment and breakdown into small tiny splinters and shards. The
Isle Of Wight (UK) amber is amongst the oldest found in the
world, an estimated 120 Million years. Not surprisingly the pieces
found are small and tiny weighing only a few grams. Lebanese
deposits dating back 125 million years are similarly found in
minuscule sizes and quantities. Baltic amber (a mere 40 millions
years old) can be found in quite large blockss, in some cases
weighing several kilos.

Facts About Amber

The quantities of the of resin which must have been generated in
the Baltic deposits was phenomenal. This can be confirmed simply
from the amount of amber that has been extracted from various
Baltic mines. The Palmnicken factory , a German government
controlled company extracted in 1925 a record 1,205,916 pounds.

Commercial mining and gathering activities have been recorded from
as early as 1264 AD and in various guises continues to this day.
Imagine, how much amber has been extracted over a period of 700+
years? It is also true to state that the majority of this
extraction was subsequently turned into varnish and shellac. We
will never know what wonders have been lost.

The amber from the Samland Peninsula in the Baltic is actually a
secondary deposit. The original amber forest was located further
South. The resin was subsequently carried North probably by two
great rivers from its original site and deposited in a great
esturial drift of silt and clay. This deposit site extends out
under the sea and stops short of the East Anglia coast. This is
the source of amber washed up onto the Norfolk, Suffolk beaches.
Autumn and Spring storms together with complimenting tides tears
pieces of raw amber from the sea bed and strands them on the shore
line. If you look for amber its usually mixed in with the
stranded seaweed, litter and of course obligatory dead seagull.

The chemical structure of Amber is not consistent, not even
within a single fragment let alone a single deposit. Consequently
numerous chemical formulas have been attributed to it: C10H16O -
13C40H64O14 - 12C12H20O. The reason for this wide variation is
simply because amber is not a true mineral, it is a compound with
variable mixtures, consequently no precise quantification can be
made with any exactitude. Some aspects of amber are fairly
consistent. On Moh’s scale of hardness it lies between 2 and 2.5.
It has a refraction index of 1.54 and a melting point between 150

  • 180oC.

The colour range is extremely varied, ranging from near white
(osseous) through all shades of yellow, brown and red. There are
even examples of blue and green amber. Blue - Green amber is
thought to have two possible causes; the permeation of raw resin
by mineral deposits present either in the soil into which it fell,
or the settling of volcanic dust and ash onto the resin when it
was first secreted. By what ever process, the resin is impregnated
with none native compounds and given its distinct hue.

The claim of strong fluorescence in amber is often exaggerated.
Generally, the fluorescence is weak and photographs which show
glowing pieces of amber are usually achieved with exposure times
in excess of 2 minutes under strong UV lamps, quite misleading.

Inclusions in Amber

One of the most exciting and interesting aspects of amber are the
inclusions which are often found within it, these are both flora
and fauna in type.

The most frequent inclusions to be found in amber, particularly
Baltic are examples of the Diptera Family, or true flies. Quite
often these are Mycetophilidea species, often referred to as
fungus gnats. These tiny little flies would have lived on the
fungus growing on the rotting vegetation of the amber forest of
which no doubt there was enough to support an enormous population.

It is this aspect of amber, these frozen moments in time which
give us this insight into the ecology of ancient times which makes
it so fascinating and compelling to study. It should also be
recognised that amber gives us a skewed view of this ancient
world. For example, it is unusual for instance to find cockroaches
in amber. But, Blattoidea most certainly did exist as every stage
of pupation is present within the amber record, but why so few
adults? The reason is quite simple; cockroaches were big enough
and large enough to pull themselves out of the resin. Analysis
therefore of the amber deposits needs to be done with a high
degree of circumspection, research and reasoned insight.

There are some unusual and extraordinary things which
infrequently turn up in amber. Occasionally a small lizard will be
found, trapped and encased in amber, particularly from the
Dominican Republic deposits. The AMNH have a famous example of a
25,000,000 year old gecko. Lizards are extremely rare in European
deposits. The author believes there have only been two known and
verified instances of lizards preserved in Baltic amber. One has
since been lost to science, the other is currently for sale and
can be viewed on the Internet at the following web site:
http://goldray.com/amberlady/lizard.htm

Another unusual find are the remains of a frog discovered in a
piece mined in the Dominican Republic. At first it was thought to
be just one animal with some tissue preserved. The distinct shape
of the animal can be seen but most of the flesh has deteriorated
and several bones are exposed, some broken. Under closer scrutiny
a review of the bones suggested that this particular frog must
have had at least 6 legs. Palaeontologists speculate that a bird
who ate the frogs may have had a feeding site, perhaps on a branch
directly above an accumulating pool of resin. Hence the numerous
bones present. The complete frog was perhaps an unlucky drop by
the bird when it alighted on the branch.

Mammalian animals have left their mark in the amber record.
Their hair can infrequently be found trapped as tufts or single
strands. When found in Baltic amber it is often attributed to
Sloths who lived within the ancient forest. The author has in his
possession a piece of amber which has strands of hair which have
been identified as that of a mole. One can only guess how they
came to be trapped within the amber.

Doctor Kosmowska-Ceranowicz has describes a large set of
mammalian molars which were discovered encased in Polish amber.
The teeth have been perfectly ‘amberised’ and it is thought that a
dead animal lay with its face partially lying in a bed of resin.
The resin seeped in and around the decaying jaw of the animal thus
preserving the set of teeth.

Resin whilst in the process of hardening usually develops a skin
whilst the internal composite is still soft. Occasionally amber of
this nature has impressions stamped on its surface and thus
becomes a trace fossil. In one such piece the impression of a cats
paw has clearly been left in a piece of Baltic amber.

During 1996 the spine and ribs of a mouse were discovered in
amber from one of the Dominican Republic sites. This discovery has
completely re written the standing theory of the population of the
West Indian islands by land animals. Yet again another remarkable
insight into the ancient evolution and development of life through
the window of amber.

Fakes

The faking of inclusions of amber has been a major cottage
industry since the earliest times. This perhaps reached its
height in the early 1900 and a major source was from New Zealand.
The North Island has some major deposits of Kaori Gum, and at the
turn of the 19 century some was used to fake and imitate true
amber. The digging of Kaori Gum was such a major industry in fact
the workers even had their own newspaper; ‘The Gum Diggers
Gazette’.

The Kaori Gum would be melted gently and a suitable inclusions
placed into the matrix, this was frequently some kind of colourful
insect. Colour is always a dead give away of a bogus amber fossil.
Truly ancient amber fossils have no colour pigmentation left at
all and are usually monotone. However, beetle colour is often an
effect of light refraction, i.e. the light being broken into its
spectrum elements, the resin however prevents this. By removing
the amber from the back of amberised beetles it has been reported
that the original colour returns after 40 million years, quite
amazing.

One of the cleverest fakes the author has encountered involves the
use of a true piece of amber. The amber had a section cut from one
end of the piece. A hole was then drilled into the main block.
Inside this cavity was placed the insect which was in fact
contemporary to the time of the faking. The offending insect was
then surrounded by molten resin and the previously sawn of section
placed back in position and glued with the same liquid resin. The
result was externaly a perfect piece of amber which passed all
tests for true amber.

Most of our understanding, beliefs and research on amber has
been based upon the work of European and American culture. The
Chinese shared our fascination with amber and the earliest written
references go back to A.D. 92. They believed that amber was the
soul of tiger which had died and passed into the earth and the
Tibetans had perhaps the most beautiful name for this gem; p/-she,
which meant perfumed crystal.

Amber is a strange and attractive gem. Its golden transparency
lends it a quality which even diamonds do not share. For the
artisan it provides a remarkable medium to work with and create
some of the most beautiful objects for us to enjoy. For the
scientist it provides a glimpse into the past, a window into
history.

The author is always interested in discussing and listening to
stories about amber. Please feel free to contact him through any of
the following: Garry Platt. 81 Buxton Road, Furness Vale, High Peak.
Derbyshire. SK23 7PL. UK. Tel No; 01663 745367. E Mail;
garry@gplatt.demon.co.uk.

Garry Platt
(Deputy Director - CMTC)

E Mail Address: garry@gplatt.demon.co.uk