Pieces of amber jewellery made in the second and third millennia BCE have been found to be fakes – revealing that the practice of passing off dodgy imitations to unsuspecting customers stretches back at least 5000 years.
In a paper in the journal PLOS One, researchers led by Carlos Odriozola from the University of Seville in Spain report on a chemical analysis of six ostensibly amber prehistoric beads. Two were found in a cave tomb at an archaeological site called La Molina, near Seville, which dates to the third millennium BCE, and four came from a burial site in Cova del Gegant near Barcelona, dating from the second millennium BCE.
All turned out to be fakes.
Amber has always been a rare and expensive commodity, much prized by many civilisations. This was very much the case in prehistoric Iberia, where the ancient tree sap was acquired from Sicily via long-distance trade routes and prized as a status symbol, often in the form of grave goods.
To date, archaeologists have recovered 647 Iberian amber artefacts, dating from between the sixth and second millennia BCE.
The beads retrieved by Odriozola and colleagues will not, strictly speaking, add to the total.
“The allure and rarity of amber triggered the exchange and use of this resinite, but also the development of imitations by the use of other local translucent minerals or the application of coatings, as described by this paper, to reproduce the colour of amber,” the authors write.
Analysis of the beads from Cova del Gegant revealed that far from being made of Sicilian sap they comprised an inner core of mollusc shell, covered in several layers of a resin that the researchers think was possibly extracted from a pine tree.
The beads from La Molina were also covered in tree resin, but had had seeds at their centres. They were also reddish rather than golden in hue, but the researchers suggest that this might be the result of exposure to cinnabar, a form of mercury sulfide and another much sought-after luxury, after they were placed in the grave.
The presence of the fake amber beads at both sites, which are the final resting place of some very high-status individuals, represent a mystery. Rare and exotic items, such as ivory carvings, are present, suggesting that money was no barrier to purchasing, and that the deceased (before their demise) were well wired into luxury good trade networks.
Odriozola and colleagues advance three possible explanations.
Perhaps real amber had become difficult to acquire due to increasing demand, they suggest, or perhaps the grave occupants weren’t actually as wealthy as they appear and had to opt for lower-cost lookalikes.
Or perhaps, they add, the imitation beads were “products used by middlemen to cheat the purchasers”.
They also note that many of the hundreds of prehistoric artefacts previously recovered have been identified as amber primarily through visual inspection. More detailed chemical analysis might expose a proportion of them to be similarly counterfeit.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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