Prehistoric craftsmen created fake amber beads

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A US research team unveils this practice, which was intended to meet the demand in places where amber was scarce.

A study by the QUANTAS research group of the University of Seville has revealed that prehistoric communities in Spain and Portugal developed the first known composite to simulate amber, reflecting the development of complex technical systems by these Neolithic artisans in regions where amber was scarce. The article that collects the results of this study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science , has been selected by the journal Nature in its Research Highlight section.

Prehistoric craftsmen created fake amber beads with this composite to meet the demand for this valuable resin in regions where it was scarce. The emergence of this technology marks the first time in history that a composite material has been developed to simulate amber by mixing beeswax, pine resin and a vegetable dye. This composite is then glued to the shell with an adhesive made from bone (bone glue).

For much of history, amber was a highly prized commodity, associated with power and wealth. However, in prehistoric times, fossilized resin was rare in the Iberian Peninsula: most of the amber artifacts dating from the fifth to the second millennium BC found in the Iberian Peninsula are concentrated in only three tombs.

In 2019, researchers discovered that, in some tombs in Spain (Cova del Gegant, Sitges, Barcelona), there were genuine amber beads alongside several that looked like imitations. The hypothesis, therefore, was that in the absence of amber, prehistoric artisans used a material that simulates amber to create objects that had the appearance of amber. Initially it was determined that the substance they used was pine resin.

The QUANTAS group of the University of Seville has visited numerous museums in Spain and Portugal in search of more evidence of this behavior, locating more than 2000 beads that simulate amber spread over 15 sites. After analyzing these amber-simulating beads in detail, they were able to determine that prehistoric craftsmen in Spain and Portugal used shells as a support, which they then coated with a composite that gives them the appearance of amber.

Bibliographic reference

Carlos P. Odriozola, José Ángel Garrido-Cordero, Ana C. Sousa, José María Martínez-Blanes, Galo Romero-García, Daniel Sánchez-Gómez, Manel Edo i Benaigues, Diego Romero-Vera, María Dolores Simón-Vallejo, María Dolores Zambrana Vega, José Luis Molina González. Crafting illusions: Human-made composite coating used to simulate amber beads in prehistoric Iberia ,
Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 168, 2024, 106011, ISSN 0305-4403, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.20­24.106011.

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