Baltic amber was involved in long distance trade throughout Europe and Asia beginning perhaps as long ago as the Mesolithic period, but certainly from the Neolithic through the Roman periods of human history, say beginning about 3000 BC.
What is Baltic Amber?
Amber is any natural resin which oozed its way out of a tree and eventually fossilized at any time from recent times back to the Carboniferous Period of some 300 million years ago. Amber is generally yellow or yellow brown and translucent, and it is pretty when polished. In its fresh form, resin has been known to collect insects or leaves in its sticky clutches, preserving them in visually perfect splendor for thousands of years--the oldest amber-preserved insects so far are Late Triassic-aged specimens of 230,000 million years ago. Resins which can become amber are found wherever certain kinds of trees oozing sap (a few conifers and angiosperms) are found--almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere of our planet.
Baltic amber (known as succinite) is a specific subset of amber that is found only in northern Europe: it accounts for some 80% of the known amber in the world. Between 35 and 50 million years ago, sap oozed out from a forest of conifers (probably either false larch or kauri) in the region now covered by the Baltic Sea, and eventually hardened into clear lumps. Shoved around northern Europe by glaciers and river channels, lumps of genuine Baltic amber can still be found today on the eastern coasts of England and Holland, throughout Poland, Scandinavia and northern Germany and much of western Russia and the Baltic states.
What is the Attraction?
Archaeologists are interested in identifying Baltic amber as opposed to locally available amber, because its presence outside of its known distribution is an indication of long-distance trade. Baltic amber can be identified by the presence of succinic acid--the real thing has between 2-8% succinic acid by weight. Unfortunately, chemical tests for succinic acid are expensive and damage or destroy samples. In the 1960s, organic chemist Curt Beck began using infrared spectroscopy to successfully identify Baltic amber, and because it only requires a sample size of about two milligrams, Beck's method is a much less ruinous solution.
Amber and baltic amber have been used in Europe beginning in the early Upper Paleolithic, although no evidence for widespread trade that long ago has been discovered. Amber was recovered from the Gravettian period La Garma A cave site in the Cantabrian region of Spain; but the amber is of local derivation rather than Baltic.
Cultures which are known to have actively traded in amber included Unetice, Otomani, Wessex, Globular Amphora, and, of course, Roman. Large deposits of Neolithic artifacts made of amber (beads, buttons, pendants, rings, and plaquette figurines) have been found at the Juodkrante and Palanga sites in Lithuania, both dated between 2500 and 1800 BC, and both of which are near Baltic amber mines. The largest deposit of Baltic amber is near the town of Kaliningrad, where it is believed that 90% of the world's Baltic amber can be found. Historic and prehistoric hoards of raw and worked amber are known from Biskupin and Mycenae and throughout Scandinavia.
The Amber Room
But the gaudiest use of baltic amber has to be the Amber Room, an 11 foot square room constructed in the early 18th century AD in Prussia and presented to the Russian czar Peter the Great in 1717. Catherine the Great moved it to her summer palace in Tsarskoye Selo and embellished it about 1770. The Amber Room was looted by the Nazis during WWII and although pieces of it have turned up in the black market, what must have been tons of original amber have completely disappeared, and were probably destroyed. In 2000, custom officials from Kaliningrad donated 2.5 tons of newly mined amber for the restoration of the Amber Room, which is what is illustrated in the photograph on this page.
Baltic amber is not necessarily preferable to any other kind of amber--in fact, Beck comments that it is visually indistinguishable from the local varieties found elsewhere. Baltic amber is simply available in vast quantities in northern Europe, and it may have been a matter of supply and demand that fueled widespread trade.
Amber and aDNA
Despite the early notions of amber preserving ancient DNA (aDNA) in captured insects (and leading to popular movies such as the Jurassic Park trilogy), it isn't likely. The most recent studies suggest that although extant DNA may possibly exist in amber specimens less than 100,000 years old, the current process used to retrieve it destroys the specimen and may or may not successfully retrieve aDNA. Baltic amber, for sure, is too old to make this possible.
Ancient myths about amber include the Greek Phaethon and his sisters' tears shed as he died.
Volume 16, issue 3 of the Journal of Baltic Studies was subtitled Studies in Baltic Amber, and is worth looking at if you're doing research on the subject. NOVA has a good page on amber called Jewel of the Earth.
Beck CW. 1985. Criteria for "amber trade": The evidence in the eastern European Neolithic. Journal of Baltic Studies 16(3):200-209.
Beck CW. 1985. The role of the scientist: The amber trade, the chemical analysis of amber, and the determination of Baltic provenience. Journal of Baltic Studies 16(3):191-199.
Beck CW, Greenlie J, Diamond MP, Macchiarulo AM, Hannenberg AA, and Hauck MS. 1978. The chemical identification of baltic amber at the Celtic oppidum Staré Hradisko in Moravia. Journal of Archaeological Science 5(4):343-354.
Gimbutas M. 1985. East Baltic amber in the fourth and third millennia B.C.
Martínez-Delclòs X, Briggs DEG, and Peñalver E. 2004. Taphonomy of insects in carbonates and amber. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 203(1-2):19-64.
Reiss RA. 2006. Ancient DNA from ice age insects: proceed with caution. Quaternary Science Reviews 25(15-16):1877-1893.
Schmidt AR, Jancke S, Lindquist EE, Ragazzi E, Roghi G, Nascimbene PC, Schmidt K, Wappler T, and Grimaldi DA. 2012. Arthropods in amber from the Triassic period. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition.
Todd JM. 1985. Baltic amber in the ancient near east: A preliminary investigation. Journal of Baltic Studies 16(3):292-301.