The history of Baltic Amber
As temperatures continue to drop on the countdown to Christmas, tourists and students alike have taken to the streets of the Old Town and Central Market to find the perfect souvenirs of their time in Riga. A quintessential souvenir is Baltic Amber, but little is known about its historical significance.
Here is your guide to the history of Baltic Amber, why it’s so important to Latvian heritage and, most importantly, how to avoid getting scammed this winter!
Baltic Amber, or “Sun Stone” has been found throughout Latvia and the surrounding Baltics, such as Kurzeme, Lithuania and eastern parts of Russia since the Neolithic period. One of the most valuable forms of amber, there are over 256 different shades of Baltic Amber, ranging from deep purples hues, to the colour of light honey. Associated with fertility, protection and eternal youth, the stone was considered more valuable than gold itself and often traded throughout the ancient world as a form of currency, as well as medicine and jewellery.
Baltic Amber in the ancient world
Latvia, or “Dzintarzeme”, (Amberland), as it has been known for centuries, once formed the most significant trading crossroads on the Amber Road, a trading route which transported Baltic Amber across the North, Baltic and Mediterranean Seas throughout the Middle Ages.
Prized for its supposed properties of strength and fertility, the stone has been found in temples and gravesites throughout ancient Greece and Rome, appeared in Homer’s Odyssey, and was even found in the tomb of Tutankhamun! The stone itself is believed to hold the key to eternal youth and has been used for medical purposes for centuries. In Ancient Rome, it was hailed for its calming properties and used to treat symptoms of anxiety or restlessness and was often worn by the lovers of Emperors.
A symbol of Latvian National Identity
The stone is referenced throughout Latvian “Dainas”, or folklore, appears in ritualistic wedding songs, and is commonly worn on days of National Remembrance and Independence.
How to spot “Fake Amber”
The value of authentic Baltic Amber is dependent on both its clarity and shade.The more transparent the stone is, the higher its value, particularly if the stone displays a fossilised plant or insect. White Phosphorus, or “Fake Amber”, is commonly sold by street vendors and can be easily mistaken as authentic. The easiest way to spot a fake is to look at its colour and price; authentic Baltic Amber will come at a much higher price point and is sold in jewellery shops, rather than market stalls.
In the past decades, as independence has shone a light on Latvian heritage, Baltic Amber has become a symbol of national identity and freedom. If you want to learn more about Baltic Amber and its significance in Latvian heritage, I recommend the permanent display at the Natural History Museum of Latvia!
Darcie Peters is currently a student at Liden and Denz.