©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. The Working of Amber: Ancient Evidence and Modern Analysis, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 16 October 2019.
The Working of Amber: Ancient Evidence and Modern Analysis
There is no literary or archaeological evidence for specialized amber-workers in pre-Roman Italy. Because of its inherent properties, it is likely that amber was worked by any number of skilled craftspeople or artisans. Considering its magical and medicinal importance, amber must also have been worked by a multiplicity of ritual specialists-pharmacists, “wise women,” priests or priestesses, and by “those who had the knowledge.” However, for the working of very large carvings, or for amber fibulae composed from conjoined pieces, considerable experience with varying qualities of amber was essential.
An artisan comfortable in working other hard materials, such as hardwoods, ivory, or horn, or one skilled in cutting gems, would have found working amber comparatively undemanding. Amber is also pleasant to work, for it is fragrant, unlike ivory.
A number of scholars have proposed that amber was worked by ivory-workers. Certainly, the tool marks on the objects in the Getty collection (and elsewhere) show that eighth- to fourth-century B.C. amber objects were made with a toolkit probably no different from that of a Bronze Age ivory-worker, for which there is excellent archaeological evidence. (Much less is known about the pre-Roman period.) In fact, amber-working today has changed very little, with the exception of the speed offered by electric tools. Like Bronze Age toolkits, pre-Roman ones likely would have included bow drills, chisels, saws, knives or blades, points, awls, burins, rule and compass, vices, abrasives, oils, metal foils, pigments, and glues. The surviving evidence of amber from the Iron Age and beyond—furnishings, arms and armor, utensils, boxes, vessels, dress ornaments, and amulets—shows that amber was in the supply of many kinds of trained workers. Some composite works—furniture inlaid with ivory and amber; ivory carvings inlaid with amber; bronze fibulae ornamented with amber and ivory (figure 51); and amber carvings embellished with ivory and precious metals—are additional concrete evidence for the existence of artisans working in more than one medium. The evidence is also found in many surviving multimedia works, such as one type of seventh-century fibula made from ivory, amber, gold, and bronze, or a work such as the Getty Head of a Female Divinity or Sphinx (figure 45), an amber face with metal additions (possibly silver) and once, perhaps, inlaid eyes.
Many figured ambers, particularly those of the seventh to fifth centuries B.C., are similar in style to contemporary and earlier works in other media, such as gemstones, coins, terracottas, and bronzes. However, they are closest in manufacture, and often in subject, to objects of ivory or wood. The amber kouros in London is very close in form to a wood kouros excavated at Marseilles and to a pair of tiny ivory Etruscan kouroi. The Getty plaque Addorsed Lions’ Heads with Boar in Relief (figure 30) is very like an ivory relief. Works such as the exquisite chryselephantine “Artemis” and “Apollo” from Delphi are among the closest parallels for the Getty Head of a Female Divinity or Sphinx (figure 18) and the Getty Kore (figure 46), not only for the style, but also for details such as the eyes.
The pre-Roman ambers themselves yield considerable evidence of their manufacture. The traces of working consist of carving, cuts, filed grooves, drill pointing and drilling rills, abrasion scratches, engraving, and fine burnishing. Supplemented by both earlier (Bronze Age) and later (Roman) physical evidence, medieval and early modern treatises, and still-current methods of amber-working, a picture of their manufacture comes into focus.
The process of creating the objects likely began with careful study of the piece of amber. Some ambers must have been worked from the raw state, others from preexisting finished works. In some cases, the raw material was treated as if it were any other costly material, and little trace exists of the natural form of the amber, whether drop, rod, or sheet. However, in other cases, the ancient resin’s naturally occurring form is retained and sometimes even exploited in the finished object; the Getty Hippocamp (figure 52), Kourotrophoi (figures 35 and 53), and Lion (figure 55) are good examples.
If the work were begun with a raw piece of amber retaining its outer skin, or cortex, it was necessary to remove it and any encrusted material, organic matter, or shells. This was likely done with saws, abrasive powders, and water. The fissures would be cleared of organic matter and hard minerals, the pyrites. In amber-working, water acts as both a coolant and a lubricant in the shaping, smoothing, and drilling processes, since the ancient resin softens or melts with the application of high friction. The resulting surface of an amber blank was smooth but uneven, with craters and undulations. In the seventh century, an artisan might remove a large amount of material to attain the desired form; in fifth-century B.C. Italy, the design would be accommodated to the irregular (magical) shape. The twelfth-century A.D. guide to working crystal by Theophilus probably outlines the next steps that are corroborated by the tooling remains on both pre-Roman and Roman-period ambers. The medieval treatise states: “Rub it with both hands on a hard sandstone moistened with water until it takes on the shape you want to give it; then on another stone of the same kind, which is finer and smoother, until it becomes completely smooth.”
Theophilus then suggests the use of a flat abrasive surface to sand the nodule. Evidence of this is found on the remarkably well-preserved flat inside of the Getty pendant Head of a Female Divinity or Sphinx (figure 18).
The amber pieces must have been further abraded, carved, graved, and polished into the desired subjects, perhaps refined with engraving (and, more rarely, drilling). Sketching was likely done with a sharp scriber of metal, stone, or flint. Pliny refers to “Ostacias” (possibly flint), which is “so hard that other gemstones are engraved with it.” Engraving required a rotating instrument, such as a bow drill, the standard tool of a gem engraver.
The narrow-bore suspension perforations, usually transverse, were drilled with particular attention to how the pendant would hang or would attach to a carrier. The narrowness of the borings suggests that the ambers would have been suspended from plant filaments, such as linen, or even silk. Many larger pendants have multiple long borings, again usually transverse, signifying that more than a simple filament was needed for the suspension, or that the pendant was part of a complex beaded apron, neck ornament, or girdle or was sewn directly onto clothing. The large Ship with Figures (figure 6) and the Getty Kourotrophos group (figures 35 and 53), to name two examples, have multiple perforations and would have required more than one carrier, and a system of knots. The circa 600 B.C. multipiece pendant in Trieste and the circa 500 B.C. composite pendants from Novi Pazar were made possible by complicated stringing/knotting systems. The through-borings are all visible in the transparent amber.
Not only would the stringing have secured the pendants, but both the knots and the action of tying the knots were critical to amuletic usage. In magical practice, tying a knot implies hindering negative actions. Demons and their corresponding diseases were believed to be caught by knots, bands, threads, strings, and amulets. Knots thus could actively play a protective or benevolent role. The pendant-amulets would have been tied on, attached, or suspended as an essential aspect of their efficacy, as we learn from ancient literary sources. The large frontal holes of some figured works are secondary to the transverse perforations and, as discussed below, could be used to attach works to pins or even to a piece of furniture.
The final stage of the work was probably to polish the surface, likely with oil and a fine abrasive or cloth. To bring out the brilliance of the stone, Theophilus instructs: “Finally, put the tile rubbings, moistened with spittle, on a goatskin free of dirt and grease, which is stretched on a wooden frame and secured below with nails, and carefully rub the crystal on this until it sparkles all over.” For amber, such polishing and rubbing would bring up the luster and the fragrance, releasing the amber’s ambrosial perfume; if that were not enough, the piece could have been rubbed with perfumed oils. We might imagine how this would have added to amber’s attraction and mystery, especially if it were a divine image. The delicious odor might have “[matched] the emanation of fragrance that forms so regular a part of divine epiphanies.” As a divine characteristic, fragrance was itself imbued with the power of everlasting life.
All of the surviving pre-Roman figured ambers (at the Getty Museum and elsewhere) reveal an understanding of the morphological and structural characteristics of the ancient resin. Compositions tend to be compact, without projecting parts; the potential points of weakness are minimized in the designs. In human figures, legs and feet are close together, arms and hands are attached to bodies, and necks are short; animals may have their legs tucked beneath themselves, heads reverted, and tails curled around their haunches. The best-preserved works retain signs of surface burnishing, which once enhanced the optical qualities of the amber: its transparency, brilliance, luster, and color.
The earliest figured amber objects from Greece and Italy, dating to the eighth to seventh centuries, are small, from about 48 mm, and frequently imitate small-scale sculptural objects in other media, including ornaments and amulets. The Orientalizing amber carvings are comparable to works in ivory, bone, wood, faïence, precious metals, gemstones, and bronze. Many appear to be direct translations into amber. Examples are the Egyptian and Egyptianizing scarabs, scaraboids, monkeys, dwarves, and other time-honored amuletic subjects. In these small works, there is no evidence of the amber’s natural shape, and little wastage. Some excess may have been used to make tiny beads or inlay, as flux in goldsmithing or as incense or medicine. A number of pendants in the Getty collection, all dating to about the last third of the sixth century B.C., correspond closely to objects of Ionian Greek (or Ionian-influenced) art. Among the finest examples are the two Heads of a Female Divinity or Sphinx (figures 18 and 45), the Kore (figure 46), and some of the rams’ and lions’ heads.
A different approach to the material emerged at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. The natural form of the amber nodule is preserved, even enhanced, by the design. Some objects, such as the Getty Hippocamp (figure 52), suggest that the lumpy nodule of amber may even have dictated the subject. The subjects of the multifigure pendants are distorted as they wrap around the exceptionally large amber pieces. In order to comprehend the entire subject, the pendant needs to be physically turned in every direction. In any one view, the figures are deformed; but as the pendant is turned, the shapes shift. The Boston Dancing Youth (figure 54) and the British Museum Satyr and Maenad (figure 17) are excellent illustrations of this approach. The compositions are illogical, the scale of the figures is skewed, parts are missing, the heads and bodies are twisted or wrapped around the amber in an anatomically impossible manner. Is this because of the sanctity of the whole piece of amber? Are the figures deformed as part of the magic, the shapes shifting as the object is turned over? Might this shape shifting—a common demonic talent—be part of the attraction?
A variant of this approach is seen in a number of animal subjects, best exemplified by the Getty Lion (figure 55). In this work, there must have been no appreciable wastage. The natural form of the amber blank is obvious and the subject embellishes, rather than conceals, the idiosyncrasies of the raw material. In such cases, the outline, depth, and undulations of the surface are incorporated into the design, with the result that animals and anthropomorphic figures are compacted, splayed, or contorted. A few anthropomorphic pendants are worked in the round, but many have flattish, plain backs. Since the amber was transparent, the carving would have been visible from any angle, an extraordinary sight especially if the piece was figured on all sides. The reverse of the Lion allows it to be seen from below, a view only chthonic beings might have. These are extraordinary sculptural objects; in the ancient world, perhaps only in-the-round rock crystal carvings are comparable.
There are precedents as early as the third millennium for the figural manipulation and contortion of pre-Roman amber objects. Many examples can be found in the art of the Near East in objects dating to the fourth millennium and the Aegean Bronze Age. Ivories, amulets, and stone vessels are figure-wrapped. However, this is not common in Greek art. In Italy, the earliest parallels are in Etruria, in bronze vessel attachments and scaraboids. The outstanding examples of a wraparound composition on a large scale are the stairway sculptures of circa 560 B.C. from a possible altar at the side of a clan tumulus at Cortona. The extreme examples of figure contortion are certain pre-Roman amber pendants, of which the earliest might be associated with neighborhood of Cortona. Was it done only to preserve as much of the amber as possible—not just because of amber’s high value, but also because of the efficacy of the resulting images? Might it also have been done because such contortion was a way to magically “bind” or control the potency of the subject? Were the subjects of the British Museum Vintaging Satyr or the Getty Hippocamp (figure 52) bound in order to strengthen their power?
Many human and humanoid heads contain drillings, or stopped bores, many of which were filled with tiny amber plugs, on average 2 to 3 mm in diameter and 5 mm in length. These holes are on the face, in the hair and headdress, on the neck, or on the obverse, but were never drilled into the facial features. Only sometimes are they found in areas with inclusions. It is not apparent why the holes were bored and then plugged. The holes might have been made to render the pendant more consistently translucent, or to remove a microscopic bubble or an inclusion. Alternatively, the amber may have been drilled specifically in order to insert something into the bore, which was then plugged. Amulet-making and medicinal recipes often include directions for inserting materials into another object. Many of the plugs are now missing, but the remaining ones are often darker and more opaque than the rest of the pendants. This is probably not an intended effect, but a result of the plugs’ accelerated oxidation. The Getty Asinine Head in Profile (figure 56) has four large stopped bores, but none of the plugs remain. This pendant is full of inclusions, and the stopped bores penetrate into areas with inclusions. On the other hand, the Getty Winged Female Head in Profile (figure 37) has numerous stopped bores, some in areas with visible inclusions, others in areas that appear to be inclusion-free.
A number of fifth- to fourth-century B.C. amber pendants from southern Italy have large holes drilled through their middles. Four examples are still attached to large fibulae. The large holes disfigure the design and must have been drilled after the carving was finished, perhaps much later. In the case of four other pendants, including a Satyr Head (figure 49) that retains its silver fibula, the holes are incorporated into the design, which implies that the perforations preexisted the figural composition. The large holes may have originated in the amber’s formation (the resin could have formed around a small branch) or in a previous use: the pendants might have been carved from older works, perhaps large, plain beads or pin decorations. It is also possible that these large holes were made to remove inclusions, or to insert something into the amber—both are commensurate with magico-medical practice. Alternatively, the secondary perforations may have been drilled to destroy the power of the image.
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The Working of Amber: Ancient Evidence and Modern Analysis