Amber is a great material that has been used since prehistoric days. Vikings also loved it and often used it to make jewellery. During our activities in the field of living history we come across amber quit often. Although many people know amber, they often don’t know exactly what it is and how easily it can be worked.
The Dutch word barnsteen (amber) comes from the Nedersaksic word börnen which means burning. Amber can indeed burn and when it does, you can smell the resin of pine trees, the original substance of which amber is made. The English name for this material is Amber. This name is also sometimes used for the amber found in the intestines of whales: ambergris. Ambergris is used in some perfumes.
The Greek word for amber is elektron from which the word electricity derived. When you rubb amber with a piece of animal fur, the amber will be charged with static electricity.

Petrified resin

Amber is an mineral of organic origin, like blood coral and pearls. It is petrified resin from pine trees and is about 30-50 million years old.
Damaged pine trees release a resin from their wounds that protects the tree from fungi and insects. In prehistoric times the trees in the region of the Baltic sea produced masses of resin. After the last iceage this amber was washed out of the soil and washed into the sea. Younger amber is a little greasier to the touch and is called ‘kopal’. A lot of kopal is found in and experted from some parts af Africa.

Geel barnsteen

A lot of amber is found in and around the Baltic sea. The Polish city of Gdansk is well known for it’s amber but in Samland in Russian Kaliningrad 90% of the worlds amber production is found but it is also found in Denmark, Syria, Libanon, Thailand, Vietnam, Canada, the USA, Germany, The Dominican Republic and even in our own little country The Netherlands small quantities of amber can be found.


Amber can be a warm yellow, orange to red colour. The red hues, the darker the better are most populair and often used in jewellery. Transparent amber is highly praised and therefore more expensive then opaque amber. there is also white, black, blue and green amber. These differences in colour arise depending on different pollutions of the resin.
Blue amber is only found in the Dominican Republic.


The ancient Romans already noticed that insects were sometime encapsulated in amber. They explained this (correctly) by assuming that the amber had ones been liquid. That is why they called it succinum or gum-stone. Age colours the insects black. Unlike what movies like Jurassic Park suggest, it is not possible to take DNA samples of the blood these fossilised insects ones eat.

Collectie Drents Museum

The oldest worked amber in Europe is about 13000 years old and was worked by deer hunters. The many beads found prove this. The beads on this picture are part of the collection of the Drents Museum. It doesn’t look much like amber but this is because the amber has erosion on the outside of the stones.

Collectie Drents Museum
Tears of the Gods

According to Greek mythology the god Helios let his son Phaeton drive the solar wagon, but the boy couldn’t control the horses. The sun scorched the heaven and earth and to save the earth Zeus threw a lightning bolt to Phaeton. The boy fell to the earth dead and his sisters, the Heli Aden mourned him. There fallen tears solidified and fell to the earth as pieces of amber.

More valuable than gold

The ancient Romans loved amber. At the hight of it’s popularity it was more valuable then gold. The Romans used it for jewellery and little statuettes like the one in the picture. It was found in Nijmegen (The Netherlands), made about 2e century AD and it’s about 5 cm high.

Collectie Drents Museum
Trading routes

The fact that even in these early times amber was profitably traded is clear. Several centuries before Christ different trading routes were used to transport amber from its references in the Northern parts of Europe to the Mediterranean regions. This explains how it is possible that amber from Denmark was found in Dutch soil. The bead cord from Exloo holds amber beads from Denmark as well as faience and tin beads from England.

Collectie Drents Museum
Drents Museum

The question remains where these trading routes ran. Did we go to Denmark to trade amber or did traders come here? Or did the trading happen in much smaller steps? Maybe someone from Northern Denmark traded with someone from southern Denmark, who traded with someone in Northern Germany who traded with….We don’t know. Here another example from the Drents Museum, the cord from Roswinkel.

Collectie Drents Museum
Princes of Zweeloo

One of the finest amber pieces found in the Drents Museum belong to the ‘princess of Zweeloo’ In a grave (about 5th century) many large glass beads were found. The woman ones buried here most have been a very special person in her community. She was buried with not only glass beads but also with a cord with amber beads.

Collectie Drents Musuem
108 beads

These amber beads, 108 in total are made of a beautiful dark red amber that most have representated a fortune. Because of her wealthy grave she is revered to as the ‘princess’ of Zweeloo but she was not a princess, she may well have been a priestess?

Detail geperst barnsteen

Densified amber is made of small pieces of amber that have merged under high pressure. It is real amber but not how mother nature made it. It is often called “original amber” instead of “real barnsteen”. Under high pressure little pieces of amber are pushed into a model. The pressure creates heat and the little pieces merge together. It is a cheap way to use pieces of amber that are otherwise to small to use.

Geperst Barnsteen

Because of the heat produced by the high pressure, microscopical small air bubbles are removed and the amber becomes transparent. The higher the temperature, the darker the colour. Densified amber is easily recognized by the ‘scales’ inside the amber. You can clearly see it in the picture.


This densified amber is often found in pieces of modern jewellery. The scales often create a very beautiful effect by catching and breaking the light. If you know the signs to look for, you can recognize it from a far.
Amber was use for jewellery for centuries but in the renaissance for example it was also used to make vases, dishes or decorations for furniture.

Barnsteen boor
Working amber

Hardness of stones is measured in the scale of Mohs. The hardest stone in the world, diamant scores a 10 on this scale while amethyst and other quartzes scores a 7. The hardness of amber is only 2/ 2,5. Amber is a soft stone that can be easily worked.
During living history events we sometimes demonstrate how people used to drill holes in a piece of amber using a very simple type of drill in order to make a bead. Further down this page you can find a short film on how this drill works.

Snijden met eentouwtje
Cutting with rope

Using a piece of hemp rope you can even cut through a piece of amber. The friction between the amber and the rope creates heat and allows you to cut through the amber. Further down this page you can find a short film on how to cut amber with hemp rope..


Bead cords for praying, buttons, jewellery, statuettes, dishes, vases, decorations…throughout the centuries amber has been used for different purposes. It was also used in the tobacco industry. Because it is a very poor heat conductor, it was often used to make the mouthpieces of pipes. It is also said that it would not affect the tast af the tobacco. Some people even claim that amber has strong conserving properties.

Bijna wit
Real or fake?

                • Weight: amber is light enough to float in seawater. So: dessolve 160 gr. salt in in 1 lt. water. Amber will float in this. Dissolve 60 gr. salt iin 1 lt. water. Amber will not float in this.
                • Warmth: Stone will always seem colder then amber. Amber is a good isolator, bad heat conductor. An amber necklace will feel warmer to the skin.
                • Fire test: Amber burns with a red flame and smells like resin when burning. It leaves no residue.
                • Soft: With a simple pen-knife you can carve the amber. Tiny flakes will chip of as you do this. Plastic can be carved but will not chip.

Detail van snoer Exloo
Spiritual meaning of amber:

Amber brings a care free, sunny disposition that promotes good luck and success. It dissolves oppositions and fears and opens us to inner awareness. It stimulates our thinkingproces and makes our self-confidence and intuitive powers stronger. The stone is used to deepen meditation and second sight.
Health: helps with stomach, spleen and kidney complaints, depressions, fatigue, phobia, reduces joint problems and alleviates teething pain in babies.
Early physicians prescribed amber for headaches, heart problems, arthritis and a variety of other ailments, even the pplaque. In ancient times, amber was carried by travellers for protection. To early Christians, amber signified the presence of the Lord. In the Far East, amber is the symbol of courage; Asian cultures regard amber as the ‘soul of the tiger’; Egyptians placed a piece of amber in the casket of a loved one to ensure the body would forever remain whole.

Want to know more?

About the replica of the amberroom in St. Petersburg.

Working amber with a handdrill.

Working amber with hemp rope.
Great film in which an iron-age pendend is made out of amber. This guy is good!
Follow the amber bord of DenBlauwenSwaen on Pinterest.