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"Baltic gold" - The ancient treasure that did grow on trees By Mary Sibierski

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Monday September 18, 2006

By Mary Sibierski, Gdansk, Poland- In ancient Greek myth it was when Phaeton, the son of the god Helios decided to drive his father's horse-drawn sun chariot across the heavens that amber was first created. When the joyride spun out of control, Phaeton perished. In their sorrow, his sisters turned into poplar trees and their tears became drops of amber.

The ancient Greeks first called amber Elektron, or "that which comes from the sun," while for the Syrians it was Kahrba or "a thief of straws." For the ancient Prussians it was Gentar, Jantar for the Slavs and Rav for the Danes. In the Germanic languages it is still known as Bernstein or "stone that burns" and Bursztyn in Polish.

The modern English term for amber is thought to have its linguistic roots in the Arabic Anbar, which oddly enough, means "sperm whale."

Throughout history, humans have mistaken amber to be the faeces of mythical beasts, a wax produced by giant ants, the fossilised spawn of huge fish or even elephant semen.

But to know the true origin of amber, particularly of deposits found in and around the Baltic Sea, one must turn back the clock an aeon or two.

Baltic amber has its origins in thick prehistoric coniferous forests which covered a land mass in the region of modern-day Scandinavia and parts of what is now the Baltic Sea a very distant 40 million years ago. Today we admire resins which oozed from the trunks of these massive prehistoric trees as amber.

Geologist believe an ancient river, which has been termed the Eridan, transported dead tree trunks caked in sticky resin to a sea which was a smaller precursor of the modern Baltic, which itself was formed only 10,000 years ago.

Rich deposits of fossilised tree resin or succinite, better known as Baltic amber, accumulated in the sea along what is now the Baltic coast between the Polish village of Chlapowo and the Sambian peninsula of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

They are among the world's most plentiful, with deposits in Poland alone estimated to be some 650,000 tons.

Other large amber caches around the globe are found in Canada, Columbia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Myanmar, Siberia, Borneo, Australia and Japan.

In Poland, it is known as "Baltic gold" and is regularly washed up on beaches in the Gdansk area by storms.

With the first traces of amber crafting in Gdansk dating from the 10th Century, it is little wonder the city has become the world capital for amber work. It is home to hundreds of workshops producing jewellery as well as the annual Amberif amber fair, the largest event of its kind in the world.

To honour the epic history of amber in the region, Gdansk recently opened the Museum of Amber encapsulating 40 million years of history on five floors of a 14th century red brick tower in the heart of the city's picturesque old town. Originally built as part of the city's ramparts, it was long used as a prison complete with torture chambers.

Museum director Joanna Grazawska beams with pride when she speaks of the jewel crowning the museum's rich collection of amber pieces.

A tiny white lizard frozen in a golden globule of amber roughly two centimetres in length and one centimetre in width is an unique time capsule of life from 40 million years ago.

It was found in 1997 locally in Gdansk by amber craftswoman Gabriela Gerlowska and is perfectly preserved.

"It cost a fortune," Director Grazewska reveals. "But it absolutely had to be part of our collection - we couldn't let it go elsewhere."

Indeed, the museum is home to an impressive collection of so-called amber inclusions of prehistoric vegetation and insect life and is more than likely the only place on earth where visitors can see two flies caught "inflagrante" aeons ago in a blob of resin, now turned into amber.

Other pieces showcase the aesthetic charm of this organic treasure.

Some resemble swirling mixtures of transparent golden honey and translucent rich, creamy butter that look good enough to eat. Others look like dark blobs of thick blackish-brown molasses with haunting ghost-like misty white smudges. Yet other specimens are the colour of champagne or pale beer which sparkle with tiny air-bubbles.

Information on the alleged healing qualities of amber is also available. The ancient resin is thought to ease respiratory problems when powdered and combined with alcohol and taken as a tonic.

Gdansk's Amber Museum is also home to the world's second largest piece of amber weighing in at 5.9 kilogrammes. The biggest single piece of amber ever found weighs some 9.75 kilogrammes and is on display at Berlin's Humboldt University Museum of Natural History.

While the lower floors showcase amber's prehistoric origins, the Gdansk museum's top floors bring the ancient resin up to date, showing how local craftsmen and women skilfully transform it into glittering jewellery making an ultra-modern fashion statement.

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur