"In the sea of the changeable winds, his merchants fished for pearls. In the sea where the North Star culminates, they fished for yellow amber."
-Inscription on an obelisk erected by a king of Nineveh
"If the insect could speak it would certainly have modified all the knowledge about the history of the distant past."
-Immanuel Kant, on seeing a fly trapped in amber.
In the ancient Cheddar Gorge of Somerset in England, there is a huge cavern. Since it was first discovered more than a century ago it has yielded many rare artifacts and bones from the ancient past, including even a complete seated skeleton, nine thousand years old. But in 1950 this place, named "Gough's Cave" after the Victorian sea captain who found it, also yielded what is perhaps the oldest piece of traded gem-type material ever discovered. It is dark red and rather dirty, like a scuffed piece of translucent toffee, and it is almost the size of a dozen credit cards stacked together.It is a piece of amber and it was traded at least 12,500 years ago. It looks an unlikely treasure, but treasure it is because it is possibly the first indication we have today of a human fascination with amber that has lasted since prehistoric times.
At the time of its discovery there was no way to ascertain where the amber in Gough's Cave had come from-whether from Britain (some rare pieces of native amber had been found on the Isle of Wight)or farther afield. However, fourteen years later a professor at Vassar College in New York came up with the answer. Using dental equipment designed for tooth fillings, he ground up a tiny fragment of the amber, and then observed how it absorbed infrared light. He determined that it was of Baltic origin and was therefore around forty million years old.
This was no huge surprise: most of the world's amber is from the Baltic area of northern Europe. But how could the amber have gotten into Gough's Cave so long ago? Today a small amount of amber is washed up every year on eastern English beaches, but when the Gough's Cave piece arrived, Britain was still linked to the rest of Europe by a vast land bridge, which only disappeared around 8,500 years ago. Similarly, the Baltic was not a sea but a huge freshwater lake, and it remained enclosed by land until the North Sea crashed through Denmark around 5500 b.c. So, for that little piece of amber to travel the hundreds of miles from its place of origin to Somerset, it must have been carried there-by human hands.
Perhaps it was a one-off piece, kept in a pouch by a single long-distance migrant, but it is more likely, given the distance involved, that it got there in a complicated series of trades.The amber would have been handed from one early merchant to another, swapped for food, weapons, flints, or furs, and its presence in the Somerset cave was the earliest evidence of what would become an extensive trading network across Europe: the Amber Route.
To follow it back, we will travel east, across what are now the southern English counties, covered then with balmier forests and plains, and over the ancient land bridge into what is now northern France or the Netherlands, which were then on higher ground. We will continue into northern Germany, then farther north toward Denmark, or perhaps east to the extended flatlands of the Vistula delta in Poland, which for thousands of years has been the most productive source of amber in the world. Amber trading happened here in such a frenzy that it has been said to have hastened the arrival of the Bronze Age in Baltic Europe. And in addition to the piece found in Gough's Cave, there is evidence in ancient tombs and caves all over Europe, and even in North Africa and the Middle East, that Baltic amber traveled for many miles, from Stone age times to now. The height of its mystery was the time of the ancient Greeks, who said that King Menelaus' palace was lined with it, and it was almost equal in its magnificence to the Kingdom of Heaven.
But why? Nowadays amber is often seen as a poor cousin to the other treasures of the jewel box. It tends to be light, soft, cheap, and not very rare at all. But accident, history, and some remarkable physical qualities have meant that it has sometimes been valued more highly than gold. It so intrigued early physicists that they named one of the most extraordinary natural phenomena in the universe after it; and in its time it has inspired treasure-seekers, dictators, thieves, crusaders, scientists, madmen, and filmmakers. For some it has been a proof of God's existence; for others it has confirmed the reverse.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Jewels by Victoria Finlay. Copyright © 2006 by Victoria Finlay. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.