From bastard to burmite and the amber thread – an exhibition

From bastard to burmite and the amber thread – an exhibition
Mārtiņš Otto, Rīga 2014
Una Griškeviča
28-11-2013 A+ A-
„Since the road provided me with lots of free time, most of it I spent sitting and reading. I read everything on moles and ambers, as well as the Lake Engure. As it turned out, Lake Engure is so rich in amber due to the fact that once that area was completely covered by the sea, and the amber was washing at the bottom of it. Then the sea receded and left the lake as a large strait,” Imants Ziedonis wrote in his „Amber Tales”. Particularly this tale crossed my mind when I visited the Latvian Museum of Natural History, where on 17 January exhibition „Amber through the ages”, which is included in the European Capital of Culture museum project „Amber Road”, will be opened.

Like sugar and bones

While the exhibition, which in future will be included in the permanent exposition, is currently in development, all exhibits are stored by the Latvian Museum of Natural History, where access control is quite strict. „Nevertheless, I could show and tell you something,” Head of the Geology and Palaeontology unit of the Latvian Museum of Natural History Anita Saulīte kindly invites us to view the mineral also called the Latvian „jewel” or, more precisely, a jewellery stone.


The narrow room is full with boxes containing smaller and larger pieces of amber of various colour and structure. Prior to showing them, Anita Saulīte wears white gloves. „The exhibition will comprise Baltic amber; we will tell about its formation and show its forms of purity – amber can even be completely transparent. Also, we'll show the bastard amber, which is slightly matted on the inside.” The so-called milk amber will also be displayed; it is completely matted, with the yellow shade characteristic of Baltic amber. „We also have bone amber, which really does look like bone, in polished and rough states. Among the exhibits there is also the porous amber which is not suitable for polishing due to its fragility; however, it was once used by fishermen as a fishing float for their nets.”

The collection of the Latvian Museum of Natural History also contains the so-called sugar amber – when viewed against light, looks like there are sugar grains inside.

The project manager informed us that swamp amber will also be part of the exhibition; it formed from mouldy resin and lay in muddy or marshy soil; therefore, it has its characteristic grey tone. „We'll also put on display one of the ancient [amber] forms – the bekerite, which is rarely among Baltic ambers. However, our collection mostly comprises succinate – a yellow amber containing amber acid. Other amber varieties are of rarer occurrence. In fact there are no two identical pieces of Baltic amber, the variety is endless.”


The exhibition will also describe the formation of amber. „There are drops of amber that have formed by resin oozing down. Despite the fact that amber drops are rarely found, the collection is complete for people to enjoy.” When showing the variety of exhibits, Anita Saulīte reveals that the museum's collection of amber was gathered in a long period of time and with various methods. „We have some ancient collections that have formed in the course of museum's development. Initially collections were quite small; the largest addition emerged in beginning of 1950's – the amber was purposefully purchased from a factory in Kaliningrad and it comprised varieties of compressed amber. We have got accustomed to the idea that compressed amber is considered less prestigious; however, after some time it gains the natural colour of amber.”

The specialist points out – usually, the Baltic amber is referred to as the natural amber, but, actually, amber is gathered all around the globe. „The most ancient ambers – hundreds of millions years old – most probably cannot be found anymore, since in the course of time they have turned to coal. However, there are some amber deposits that have survived from the Cretaceous. Probably, it wouldn't be correct to call that amber, but despite all that they are fossil resin that has formed in recent past.  Still, these new ambers have not matured enough to be suitable for production, since they tend to break during processing.”

Meet the green and blue amber!

Anita Saulīte has always had the desire to improve the museum's amber collection. „In 1980's we were able to add Baltic amber to the collection, but owing to the ”Rīga 2014„ project, it was possible to significantly supplement it with amber from other parts of the world. These pieces of amber have formed in different periods and from different resin, besides they have very different characteristics,” the project manager continues her story while showing a box full of amber pieces of dark blue shade, which sparkle in deep green and blue colours.


„Long since I have made interest in amber, the burmite – amber variety from the former country of Burma – has always attracted me. In written sources it is mentioned that this amber luminesces in blue colour.” After a long search Anitai Saulītei managed to acquire one piece of burmite; however, after processing it does not luminescate, since it is a very rare phenomenon. Besides, currently luminescating ambers are not available on the amber market.

For the first time I saw luminescating amber in the Vienna Natural History Museum, but in the Palanga Amber museum, which is very popular, luminescating ambers are not present. Upon seeing this amber, my dream was to acquire one for our museum.

With support of the ministry a few years ago we obtained the first luminescating amber which is best viewed in sunlight." Currently a substantial collection of luminescent pieces of amber, both in polished and rough forms, is in possession of the Latvian Museum of Natural History.

„These blue ambers are from the Dominican Republic,” Anita describes the next exhibit whose corner is slightly fractured and adds – they radiate in blue or green shades with various intensities and are considered a unique phenomenon. „It is best to view them in sunlight or under fluorescent light. It is impossible to see this effect under normal artificial light.” She also points out that the green illumination from the Dominican amber is equally beautiful. „Nowadays this country is considered the second largest amber gathering place after the Baltics. However, the gathering process is quiet primitive – similarly to the Baltic amber, it is dug out of blue-grey soil and lies rather deeply underground, therefore special caves are excavated in foothills.”


The exposition will also comprise examples of kauri amber from New Zealand, as well as Columbian copal – especially beautiful amber, which, unfortunately, is not easy to process as it splinters. „A very interesting example is a deep red-coloured amber from ancient Mexican deposits. We also have fossil resin from Sumatra, that have a slightly violet luminescence. As you can see, amber can be found in most different shades. Sicilian amber and African copal will also be featured.”

The most difficult part was to find Japanese amber, but with the support of Japan the exhibition will feature ancient amber found in this eastern country.

Amber’s VAT

Amber can be purchased in various auctions and fairs, and owing to modern technologies, that are also used by the Museum of Natural History, interesting exhibits can be purchased online. „Naturally, amber is expensive. It has long since been appreciated around the world, but the prices are particularly growing for the Baltic amber. We are an open country, intensive trading is taking place, many foreigners, especially from the Far East, are visiting our country and enthusiastically purchasing our amber. Amber is a valuable stone that can be used as a provision – just like any other precious stone. Smaller pieces of amber are used industrially, and long ago people have noticed the healing abilities of amber, particularly of the Baltic amber form – succinate. In more extensive researches it has been proved that it is the amber acid, which is a unique bio-stiumulator and positively influences human body and health, which gives amber its healing abilities. Also, new technologies have been developed in Latvia, i.e., the amber thread invented by the RTU scientist Inga Lasenko which will also be featured in our exhibition,” Anita Saulīte expands on the upcoming exhibition and adds that numerous textiles made from the unique amber thread  will also be exhibited.


A small fraction of the exhibition will be devoted to amber jewellery, although, as Anita Saulīte points out, a separate exhibition and article should be dedicated to this field.

When asked, do Latvians appreciate the unique precious stone – amber – they possess here in Latvia, she replies that there are people who have appreciated it. „To my mind, we haven't overcome the syndrome of open borders after the fall of Soviet Union. Foreign precious stones and jewellery suddenly appeared, everybody fell for them and considered amber an empty space. But it definitely is a great value, and traditions related to it are ancient. Hopefully, people will once again recognise its significance.”



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