Whose Amber?

Changing Notions of Amber’s Geographical Origin

  • Rachel King (Autor/in)


This essay explores the issue of cultural identity and cultural identification with respect to one material: amber. Prior to the discovery of the new world and for quite some time afterwards, the primary source of amber in fifteenth-, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe was Prussia. Few Europeans, however, really understood much about its source. Indeed, few seem to have shown any interest in knowing more. This paper explores the ways in which people outside of Prussia acquired amber and whether these connections and routes led to the linking of the material with the region or not. The early modern understanding of amber’s geographical origin is contrasted with amber’s situation after 1900. The advent of notions of geographical indication at the end of the nineteenth century, coupled with the growth of national manufacturing pride emerging at the International Fairs in the decades after 1851, appear to bring about the first strong claims concerning amber’s nationality. The years after 1914-1918 war, which saw Prussia cleaved from Germany according to the Treaty of Versailles, give birth to the notion of amber as German, a status which was heavily emphasised under the National Socialist dictatorship. Since 1945, and especially in recent years, amber has become the Polish material par excellence. Highlighting recent nationalistic narratives, its aim is show that amber had plural cultural identities in the early modern period and that this ambivalence allowed amber to be draped with a variety of meanings which were cast off and replaced by others, or which existed simultaneously. It was only in the last century that strong claims were made to the actual ownership of the material and that people, with the rise of the notion of nation and national, have been able to link a nation with the material.