A Study in Amber, or Sunstone in Science and Myth

A Study in Amber, or Sunstone in Science and Myth
Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014 . Exhibition “Amber: Myths and Science” curator Juris Salaks
Una Griškeviča
The second exhibition in the series “The Amber Road in Riga” is “Amber: Myths and Science”, on show at the Pauls Stradiņš Museum of the History of Medicine from the 16th of April. On the day we visit the museum, preparations for the exhibition are in full swing, which is why an amber dress that has just arrived from Lithuania was presented to us not in the exhibition hall but in the museum’s vault. The person who proposed the idea of the project and the curator of the exhibition, Juris Salaks says that the amber dress, as well as other many other exhibits, no less interesting than the dress, will be on display for everyone to see from Wednesday, the 16th of April.

Amber perfume and amber from the 6th century

“We start our journey from ancient times – from Ancient Greece via Rome, the Middle Ages, medicine, to the present. Closing it all will be an installation by Voldemārs Johansons. This artist currently ranks very highly, and it is truly interesting to work with him. I believe that we will all be surprised,” says Juris Salaks commenting on the pending exhibition, adding that, so far, everything has been proceeding just as he had hoped it would. Will the medieval pharmacy at the exhibition offer visitors a chance to mix some drugs with amber ingredients? Juris Salaks replies that this will most probably be so, and the pharmacy will most probably be located in the same room where the installation by Voldemārs Johansons is to be set up, and goes on to say:

“We all consider ourselves experts on amber, and we all have individual feelings about amber – some like it more, some less. Amber is our Baltic symbol”.

We will weave a way from our museum via Palanga, which has a truly fantastic Amber Museum, and Nida on to Kaliningrad – a pearl that is hard to reach these days, but where real devotees of amber work at the Amber Museum. This is where a large number of exhibits come from, for example, special massage implements, amber perfume…” Juris Salaks adds that a perfume made using amber has travelled to the exhibition all the way from the Arab Emirates.


The exhibition embraces a region that goes as far as Southern Italy, the Basilicata Region where Baltic amber dating back to the 6th century B.C. has been found – and it will also be displayed at the exhibition. “After all, amber was our first currency.

Latvians used to burn amber, use it as a fuel, because we had a lot of amber. But when amber reached Italy and beyond – the Byzantine Empire, this is where amber was valued very highly.”

By the way, amber brought to Latvia from Italy was mostly found during excavations at archaeological sites. “It is displayed in one of the most famous museums in Italy – actually a complex of eight archaeological museums in Potenza. The talks were quite interesting – which was to be expected given that they were Italians. However, the most intriguing part is that we appear to be in competition with the Art Museum “Riga Bourse” as they are also working on their own exhibition about amber, but their plans to acquire a couple of exhibits from Egypt unfortunately fell through due to the Egyptian Revolution, and our colleagues had to look for new options in Italy. We had a strong lobby and therefore secured exhibits for our exhibition. Nevertheless, we arrived at a compromise so that the Bourse could also have access to engaging exhibits”. adds Juris Salaks.

Where Asclepius was buried and what else amber is good for

When asked to tell us about the most popular myths about amber, the exhibition’s curator calls in his colleague Artis Ērglis, who is happy to brief us on the Ancient Greek myth of Phaethon who asked his father Helios’ permission to drive his golden chariot across the sky. “But Phaethon was unable to control the fiery horses, and the set the earth aflame. Seeing this, the goddess of the earth, Gaia asked Zeus to save the earth from destruction. Zeus struck the sun chariot with a thunderbolt, and Phaethon perished. Phaethon’s grief-stricken, crying sisters were turned into poplar trees by the gods, but the tears they cried became pieces of amber as they fell into the cold water.” Present-day scientists believe that amber found in this region had actually come from the Baltics.



“The epic poem of Argonauts says that Zeus killed Asclepius, the son of Apollo, for bringing the dead back to life. When Apollo was crying over his dead son, his tears turned into amber the moment they hit the earth,” says Artis Ērglis, adding that the myths may vary greatly, and one even says that Apollo took the body of Asclepius to Hyperborea and buried him there.

“Hyperborea is a vast region in the north that, according to the Ancient Greeks, also included the shores of the Baltic Sea. Therefore it is possible that Asclepius’ grave is somewhere here in this region. So, Baltic amber is part of the Ancient Greek myths...”

A popular twentieth century myth is that amber can be used for treatment of the thyroid – people believed that wearing an amber necklace was the right remedy. “That is a myth, just as the Ancient Balts’ belief that earache could be treated with amber smoke,” notes Juris, emphasising though that amber is used very successfully in modern medicine. “Baltic amber contains two to eight percent of succinic acid, which in the past was known as the spirit of amber. It is a biologically active substance, which nowadays can also be synthesised. In addition to various medications – which I suspect to be dietary supplements, there also are serious medications with succinic acid additives, which are used in oncology following chemotherapy. Some of them will also be shown at the exhibition.” To this, Artis Ērglis remarks that the human body also produces succinic acid – 200 grams per day. He adds that Ancient Romans made amber necklaces for babies to chew on to make teething less painful. “These are exactly the same necklaces that can now be bought at Swiss pharmacies, which, too, are meant for this particular purpose. We have bought one such necklace for the exhibition.”


Amber dress looking for a wearer

The curator of the exhibition believes that the amber dress from Lithuania, while not necessarily the most important, will certainly be the most intriguing exhibit. “I saw the dress in Rome, where it had arrived for the Baltic amber exhibition at the “Villa Giulija” museum. The dress was created by a Lithuanian family who are all absolute fans of amber. They have amber candies, amber massage; they host seminars – a family business in fact. The designers of the dress told me it had been created over a period of six months, while preparing for the “Expo” fair in Korea in 2012.

The dress is size M, meant for a girl approximately 174 centimetres tall. I believe one has to be a fanatic to create something like this from pieces of amber.”

The organisers of the exhibition decided to forgo an amber collar that they believed did not go along with modern mentality, but the exhibition will also feature an amber crown of roses, created by the said Lithuanian family. “Of course, the exhibits that have come from Palanga, Kaliningrad, and especially Italy, are more valuable,” sums up Juris.


Juris Salaks returns to the story about succinic acid and modern amber processing technologies, reminding us about the Latvian scientist Inga Ļašenko, who is known for inventing amber thread and for using specially-treated and purified amber in her research (there is an entire stand dedicated to the scientist at the exhibition!). “Since we currently do not possess the required technology, amber from Latvia goes to Poland where it is pulverised, then it is purified in Germany, and finally it returns back to Latvia. Much like our trees from which IKEA furniture is made in Sweden that is later sold here. Well – such is the modern amber road. Besides, Inga Ļašenko has proven in her experiments that cloth made of amber thread, and amber thread per se do not cause allergic reactions. In these times when people have allergies to everything… If this line of development advances further, I believe it will have excellent prospects,” says Juris Salaks, adding that he meant prosthetic blood vessels made of amber thread in particular.

“It is no coincidence that the Egyptians used amber vessels for storing blood. It has all been done before: there are blood transfusion apparatuses that used amber, because blood coagulates slower in such vessels.”

One such apparatus, a fashionable implement in the 1930s, is located in Zurich, and it has become an “un-success story” for the organisers of the exhibition as the apparatus could not be brought here from the University of Zurich. “But maybe that’s for the better because as soon as we have access to this specimen – which is currently impossible as the museum is closed and nothing may be moved there – we will create a replica in collaboration with Mr. Mākulis. Therefore we may have the exhibit for the latter half of the exhibition – possibly in September.”

A frog and a lizard in amber

What has surprised the organisers and inspirers of the exhibition? “I was surprised to discover that the old medicine books contain a lot of unexplored secrets about amber. This goes for books that will be shown at the exhibition, and many others also,” says Juris Salaks.  Artis Ērglis is currently examining a poem by Riga humanist Daniel Hermann, published in the 17th century, which is currently part of the Misiņš Library’s collection. The poem deals with a frog and a lizard preserved in amber. “I don’t know if he had seen them, or perhaps they were talked about in a log in Europe at the end of the 1600s, but there is an entire poem about the phenomenon,” says Artis Ērglis. “We have begun to study and translate the poem together with the Misiņš Library,” he says, adding that hopefully the poem could shed some light on the fate of these two pieces of amber that vanished a long time ago.

When asked whether now that so much attention is paid to amber – as proved by several exhibitions about amber being organised this year – do people take more interest in amber, Juris Salaks admits: “The thing is, no, they don’t. Perhaps the project will change my opinion also, because I don’t profess to be a fan of amber or that amber is my stone. You see, we have so much amber that we have become used to it, it is part of our daily lives – amber can be bought as a souvenir, or maybe you have found a piece of amber yourself. However, while working on this project, I realised that amber is important to medicine, pharmaceutical research. We collaborate with researchers, and a conference will be take place in the autumn. The work on the exhibition has shown us that we must all come together as there is so much to be said about amber: Artis has his story to tell, I have mine, a scientist from Italy, who has studied the medicinal properties of amber, will also visit Latvia.”

“Amber is a special, different world that we have not fully appreciated yet nor realised that amber should be our symbol, our amulet and protector. Yet it is possible that someone will say after visiting the exhibition – yes, amber is my stone! I’m starting to feel that I, too, will soon be saying so,” Juris Salaks says laughingly.


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