When the Greek hero Meleager was born, the Fates decreed that as long as a certain brand in the fire was not consumed he would be immortal. Hearing this, his mother, Althaea, snatched the brand from the fire and carefully preserved it. Later though, when Meleager was a young man, he quarreled with his two uncles over the virgin huntress, Atalanta, whom he loved, and killed them, whereupon Althaea threw the brand into the fire where it was consumed and, as the Fates had decreed, Meleager died; the tears shed by his sisters turning to amber as they dropped from their eyes.
It is a pretty story - rather like amber itself: a tender, warm, honey-colored fossil substance used widely throughout the Middle East for worry beads, amulets and jewelry. Indeed, the word amber itself is derived, incorrectly, from the Arabic anbar - ambergris - and its use in the Middle East has been recorded from earliest times. The Elder Pliny in his Naturalis Historia describes it as an "exudation from trees of the pine family" and observes that its popularity, especially among women, was such that "a very diminutive human effigy made of amber has been known to sell at a higher price than living men, even in stout and vigorous health." Pliny also noted that a necklace of amber beads was considered to protect the wearer from several poisons, and to be efficacious as a counter charm against sorcery and witchcraft.
Most commentators consider the magical properties attributed to amber to derive from the fact that it becomes strongly electrified when rubbed, and can then attract light bodies to itself. This was probably considered by the ancients as the outward sign of the mysterious virtues that amber was supposed to contain. It seems more than likely that the attractive power revealed by amber when rubbed was the first electrical phenomenon observed by man, and the word "electricity" itself derives from electrutn, the Latin word for amber. Certainly the Roman Emperor Nero was much enamored of it; he sent an expedition from Rome to the Baltic's amber beds in today's Prussia; it returned bearing 13,000 pounds of the precious substance.
Even today, most of the world's amber comes from the shores of the Baltic Sea, where it has been mined on a large scale for more than two centuries, thus giving the area the name "The Amber Coast." In this region shafts are sunk through a superficial stratum of marl and sand, a bed of lignite with light sands, gray clays, and finally a layer of green sand, 15 to 18 meters thick (50 to 60 feet). All these strata contain amber, but in the lower portion of the green sand there is a stratum of glauconitic sand - "blue earth" - one-and-a-half meters thick (about five feet), in which amber nodules occur so abundantly that seven to nine square meters (80 to 100 square feet) yield several thousand pounds. This "blue earth" stratum runs out from the shore under the sea, where, especially in autumnal storms, it works free and is cast up on the shore by waves.
The amber from this region is of a pale yellow, translucent color, but amber found in other regions such as Great Britain, on the coasts of Sicily and the Adriatic, as well as in other parts of Europe, Siberia, the United States and the northern reaches of the Arabian Gulf, tends to be more opaque and of a deeper, golden hue.
Apart from its gentle texture and warm color, amber is also prized by scientists for what it contains. As the British poet Alexander Pope once observed:
Pretty! in amber to observe the forms
Of hairs, of straws, or dirt, or grubs, or worms!
The things we know are neither rich nor rare,
But wonder how the devil they got there.
Pope was not alone in wondering; the fragments of flora and fauna found in amber excited the curiosity of scientists everywhere since they often contained vestiges of extinct animal and plant life, which are capable of informing us about our world millions of years ago.
Among the scientists is Aftim i Acra, associate professor of environmental science in the faculty of health sciences at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, a Jerusalem-born scientist with a master's degree in public health.
Professor Acra's scientific interests range over a wide area—chemistry, biochemistry, sanitary engineering and environmental health—and in 1972 he won the Order of the Cedars from the Lebanese government for his contributions to community health in Lebanon.
But it was by making some remarkable finds of amber that Acra attracted worldwide attention. Professor Acra is modest about his reputation as an authority on amber; he insists that his study of the precious substance - or, more precisely, of the fossils within amber - is more in the nature of a hobby. Even so, during vacations and over weekends he will take off regularly for the mountains of Lebanon, eager to add specimens to his already impressive collection.
His first major find was in 1962, in the vicinity of Dar al-Baidha, on the route between Beirut and Damascus. Since then he has come across other sources, most notably in southern Lebanon, near the town of Jezzine, a beautiful area with underground springs, a huge waterfall 40 meters high (135 feet) and, in the valley below, a famous grotto. As the earth here is relatively moist, digging for amber is easier than in other places.
Altogether, Professor Acra estimates that he has collected nearly 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of amber, some of which was examined by the Natural History Section of the British Museum and found to be between 100 and 130 million years old, and thus some of the oldest ever found.
Indeed, what makes Lebanese amber so significant from the scientist's point of view - rather than the jeweler's - is that it is the oldest known amber to contain Pope's bits of flora and fauna from the past. From the specimens that Professor Acra has submitted for examination to the British Museum, it has been possible to identify 12 orders of insects and three of Arachnida - i.e. creatures with four pairs of legs, such as scorpions, mites and spiders.
By far the most abundant group of insects found in Lebanese amber, however, is the Nematoceran Diptera, an order characterized by a single pair of membraneous wings and a pair of club-shaped balancing organs known as halteres. It includes flies and mosquitoes. The next most common inclusion of insects is Hemiptera-Homoptera, a high proportion of which are Aleyrodidas. Specimens of the following orders of insects have also been found among Professor Acra's samples: Thysanura, Collembola, Orthoptera, Dictyoptera, Pscoptera, Hemiptera, Thysanoptera, Neuroptera, Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera, Coleoptem and Diptera.
Examining samples of old amber is a delicate task, best left to the experts like Professor Acra, who starts the process in his own home laboratory - by photographing and subsequently cataloging specimens - and then sends particularly promising samples to the British Museum for further examination. After more than 20 years of searching for amber, Professor Acra estimates that he has now a color slide collection of more than 2,000 specimens.
It goes slowly, he says, because amber is a rather delicate substance that must be handled gently, particularly gedanite and schranfite, the reddish resin which occurs in the cretaceous rocks of Lebanon; it tends to crack under even fairly light pressure. Other kinds - the brownish black amber called stantienite, the earthy brown "rare" amber, known as beckerite, the almost opaque glessite, and the fossil resin allingite - all tend to be harder. Lebanese amber varies from pale yellow to dark red in color, and in some samples there is evidence of the amber flowing after insects have been trapped in it. In these cases parts of single insects may be separated by several millimeters or more.
Amber may be examined dry or immersed in liquids, but as some organic solvents - such as toluene or xylene - rapidly attack amber, a mixture of 70 percent alcohol and glycerine is preferable though this solution may also fracture the amber, it spreads through the cracks, giving greater visibility.
Satisfactory results have also been obtained by using jewelry burnishing paste to polish the surface, and some of the more fragile pieces of Lebanese amber have been embedded in plastic and then mechanically polished. Such work has to be done slowly and carefully, however, because the amber can disintegrate easily.
Until recently Professor Acra's discoveries were published piecemeal in various scientific journals. Last year, however, the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research began to show interest in his work, and offer financial support, and at the moment is considering a proposal to finance publication of a study of Lebanese amber to bring the results of Acra's research together with that of other international authorities.
If made, this study would include photographs of the varieties of amber discovered in Lebanon, and would provide scholars with valuable information on secrets of the world preserved, as Francis Bacon said, in "a royal tomb" - of amber.
John Munro, a regular contributor to Aramco World, teaches English at the American University of Beirut.