©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. The Bronze Age, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 24 May 2019.
The Bronze Age
Archaeological evidence attests to widespread use of amber in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East by men, women, and children, primarily among the elite. As well as its use for amulets and adornment, it was employed to embellish arms and musical instruments, to create spindles, buttons, and pins, and to decorate boxes and furniture. Carved amber and amber-embellished objects were offered to deities and buried in sanctuary foundation deposits. In the Greek-speaking world and in Italy, these deities were almost exclusively female ones, especially those associated with childbirth. Amber was also significant in funerary contexts. Large amounts of it were buried in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae. Four of the graves in Circle A, which included both females and males, contained numerous beads: the most prolific was Grave IV, with nearly thirteen hundred. The beads “may have been imported ready-made, since [they] are different from the mass of Aegean ones.” The head and chest of the woman buried in Grave Omicron of Circle B were covered with various precious materials, including over a hundred amber beads and spacers.
The resources required to obtain so much amber must have been enormous. At this stage, certainly, amber was a material for the social elite, although as time went on, it became more widely used. As Helen Hughes-Brock observed:
The large necklaces and spacer plates were only for the very few and very rich, and hardly found their way beyond the great centers of the northeastern and southwestern Peloponnese. However, generation by generation amber spread over the Mycenaean world and to Crete and down the social scale.
The Late Mycenaean amber finds are in tombs of every type, and very occasionally in shrines—although no solid evidence connects them to any particular group of people, deity, or cult. In the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, the eastern Mediterranean, and Egypt, amber was a rare substance during the Bronze Age. A recently discovered small Baltic amber vessel in the form of a lion’s head was an exceptional objects placed in the main chamber of the Royal Tomb at late–Bronze Age Qatna, at Tell Mishrifeh, Syria (Damascus, National Museum MSH02G-i0759). It, like the other exotic, high-prestige objects found on the remains of a multiburial bier, may have served a ritual purpose. It is the most significant figured amber to come from an excavation in the region. Was it carved in the Syro-Levantine region, at Qatna even, or might it have been an exchange object or diplomatic gift?
Amber is attested with a high degree of probability in the New Kingdom, from the period of the 18th Dynasty (1550–1295 B.C.) onward, but only in exceptional circumstances and always in conjunction with other precious materials, such as rock crystal, gold, lapis lazuli, or faïence. Sinclair Hood argues that a number of “resin” objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen, including two heart (possibly) scarabs and the necklace, which he identifies as being from the Tumulus culture of central/northern Europe, are actually amber. The Tutankhamen amber would be a very early instance of funerary amber in Egypt, and an extremely early instance of an amber scarab, a form that became a popular subject in Orientalizing Italy (eighth–seventh century B.C.), especially in Etruria, given the scarab’s importance as a sun symbol and its concurrent connection to rebirth.
The importance of amber in Bronze Age northern and central Europe is demonstrated by major finds and significant objects pointing to several regional centers of manufacture with local characteristics, as Aleksandar Palavestra and Vera Krstić summarize.
In Italy, the Middle Bronze Age finds of amber in the Basilicata and Late Bronze Age finds at Frattesina, in the Po valley, are symptomatic of an active trade in both raw and finished products. The amber finds from Italy are early evidence of a long tradition of amber consumption among women of high social rank on the peninsula.
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The Bronze Age