Neolithic Amber Trade

Neolithic amber from Sicily was being traded on the Iberian Peninsula at least 2,000 years before Baltic amber made its way to the Western Mediterranean region.

Amber is fossilized tree resin, which often takes on a golden hue (hence the name “amber”), and has long been valued as a gemstone. Traded along with jade, obsidian, and other minerals. It’s mostly found in rocks of Cretaceous age or younger around the world, but the highest historic concentrations are along the Baltic Sea. 

To say that amber has “long been valued” may be an understatement. A study published yesterday in PLOS ONE describes amber of Sicilian origin being traded on the Iberian Peninsula at around the 4th Millennium BCE. Baltic amber didn’t show up in this area until around the 2nd Millennium BCE. 

Although the Baltic amber eventually replaced the earlier Sicilian amber, the researchers don’t believe it was due to new trade routes directly with the Baltic or northern trade partners. Rather, they believe it was part of a larger set of Mediterranean exchange networks. 

amber and shell dress
Example of one of the dresses made of amber and shell beads from the tholos of Montelirio.

The Chalcolithic settlement of Los Millares was excavated prior to 1943 and within the archaeological assemblages of several burial mounds there were amber beads.  The researchers used Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to compare samples from these mounds along with others to known amber from Sicily and the Baltic region. 

The results showed that there were at least 3 different geological origins: Iberia, Sicily, and the Baltic region.

The Sicilian amber was dated to show an arrival that began in the 4th Millennium BCE through trade networks that intensified in the 3rd Millennium BCE. 

Amber use appeared to decline and is the Sicilian amber is then replaced by the Baltic during the second half of the 2nd Millennium BCE where it starts to show up at Quinta do Marcelo and other locations. 

Murillo-Barroso M, Peñalver E, Bueno P, Barroso R, de Balbín R, Martinón-Torres M (2018) Amber in prehistoric Iberia: New data and a review. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0202235.

About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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