Poland could rebuild the Amber Road

Amber from the Baltic seacoast once dominated the ancient Roman market, fuelling the imaginations of local merchants, contributing to the development of commerce, which radically transformed Europe’s economy, society, and customs. Why not bring it all back?

There are many legends about amber. According to ancient Greek mythology, Phaeton, the favourite son of the sun god Helios, took his father’s solar chariot and, riding it unskilfully, got too close to the Earth, bringing fires and drought. To save humanity from certain death, Zeus himself was forced to strike the heavenly mischief-maker with lightning, killing him. As a result of this tragedy, Phaeton’s grieving sisters, turned into trees, bewept the death of their solar brother, their teardrops turning into transparent pieces of amber.

Science is less romantic on the subject. Millions of years ago, a coniferous forest covered the area what is today Scandinavia and the Baltic Sea. Cracked tree trunks and branches oozed resin, which trickled onto the ground and was transported by streams to larger rivers. Then came earthquakes which destroyed the forests, whose place was taken by the Baltic Sea. 40 years ago, the plants rotted away and disappeared. The resin amid the seabed sediments fossilised along with all that was in it – insects, spiders, butterflies, bits of plants, lizards and other small reptiles which through a moment of inattention had become trapped in the sticky, transparent substance. Thanks to the antibacterial properties of fresh resin, the tissues of these organisms mummified. Around 1.8 million years ago, part of the amber deposits along with silt and rock were transported by glacial waters south to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Already in Etruscan, ancient Egyptian, and Hellenic times amber was believed to be endowed with magical and therapeutic qualities due to its electrostatic properties and the small insects or fragments of plants inexplicably embedded inside. It was used to make amulets, which supposedly warded off evil and ensured success during hunting or fertility for women. It was also used as incense during rituals and as a disinfectant in the eradication of infectious diseases.

The beginnings of trade

Amber, the “tear of the gods” as it was known among the Germans, can be found in different parts of the world and dates back to different time periods. Its main area of extraction is in the south Baltic, however, where the oldest and most precious fossilised resin is found. Not everyone knows that most of the products offered on the market have been made by lumping together small pieces of amber cleansed and compressed at a high temperature to create a single piece. Such pieces are known as amberoids.

Archaeologists believe that around 2,500-1,800 BC, some of the communities living near the Bay of Gdansk and the Bay of Puck began to trade amber for grain, flint, copper, and various household items. The largest hub where “the Baltic gold” was processed was the Vistula delta, in the Zulawy region, where it was refined by several thousand craftsmen. The Celts developed amber trade on a large scale around 400 BC, paving the way for the epic Amber Road, connecting ancient civilisations such as Greece and Rome with the Barbaricum, the hinterland beyond the northern reaches of the Roman Empire, and more precisely with the southern Baltic coast. The Amber Road was a counterpart of the Silk Road, a trade route connecting the Chinese Empire with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which emerged in more or less the same period.

The European land and water way led from the estuary of the Vistula, upriver, then along the Warta and Prosna rivers and the upper Oder to the Klodzko Valley, and from there to the Moravian Gate and on through Alpine and Carpathian passes to Italy and Greece. Conditions along different sections of the route varied. There were bridges on the smaller rivers, although they were not always fit for crossing. Proper bridges could be found in large settlements and it was there that goods were reloaded onto beasts of burden. River transport was less costly, quicker, and allowed greater quantities of merchandise to be transported. More often than not, however, merchants had to move along unhardened roads and jolty forest trails. During spring snowmelt these turned into unpassable bogs, while in the winter copious snowfall made it impossible to use them.

A journey for the adventurous

The journey took two months one way and was a truly daunting enterprise. The voyage was as inconvenient as it was dangerous because thieves and brigands roamed the roads. Merchants were left to their own devices and could not count on help in repairing broken wheels or if an accident occurred, they therefore travelled in caravans to ensure greater safety. Orientation could pose a problem, there were no maps, it was easy to lose one’s way, the only signposts being a cross, a dyke, a large stone or a particular tree. Where topography became challenging, locals where often hired as guides.

Ibrahim ibn Yakub, a merchant from Cordoba, wrote that at the end of the tenth century the journey from Prague to Krakow took three weeks. This in fact was the only important and well-maintained high road in Poland, down which rolled caravans carrying furs and weapons from Bohemia and Germany to Kiev. Travelling down the same road, in the other direction, were carts loaded with silver, and columns of slaves.

It was not always possible to replenish food supplies and stay in a safe place overnight. Although there were inns in settlements in addition to roadside taverns that provided sleeping spaces, these were notorious as the haunt of all kinds of suspicious persons, vagabonds, criminals and prostitutes. Not to mention that they were not the cleanest of places. Merchants could find greater comfort in parish houses and monasteries which in Poland were obliged to put up travellers for the night, feed them and provide basic necessities.

The situation changed dramatically at the beginning of the early modern period, when the Roman Empire, having expanded all the way to the Rhine and the Danube, replaced Celtic domination along the route. Amber from the Baltic dominated the Roman market and fuelled) the imaginations of local merchants, whose pursuit of the precious resource contributed to the emergence of a broad trade network.

This in turn brought about radical change, not only economic, but also social and relating to customs. And although coveted amber was not the only thing brought from the north, it became the symbolic foundation of the early modern opening onto the world. Similar processes occurred along the Silk Road, an intercontinental communication network along which exotic goods smelling of faraway lands caravanned in both directions, bearing spices, china, flax, valuables, paper, and luxury silk. As well as the jewel of the Baltic, highly prized in China. The merchants carried not only merchandise, but also information, technologies and cultural trends. The greatest value of the caravan route lay in enabling the long-distance exchange of thought. The large-scale trading operations relying on the Silk Road created and supported prosperity, while the mutual influence of societies living thousands of miles apart marked milestones in the nascent process of globalisation.  

North for the gold of the Baltic

The Romans set up a network of hardened roads with inns a day’s horse ride apart. Many military strongholds providing safety for travelling merchants were also established. It therefore hardly comes as a surprise that traffic intensified significantly. Travelers included not only merchants but also messengers, soldiers and officials. Settlements developed and cities sprang up at the junction of the main marching roads. Postal establishments and marketplaces, where large quantities of goods were exchanged, appeared along the easily travelable roads.  

From the very beginnings of the amber trade a “relay” system of transactions was used. As on the Silk Road, here too not everyone travelled the whole “route of 60,000 steps”, as the Roman historian Pliny described it. The itinerary in those days ran from Aquileia, one of the Roman Empire’s main trading hubs, to what is today Vienna, Brno, Klodzko, Wroclaw, Kalisz, Konin, Bydgoszcz, the area of Pruszcz Gdanski, and often onwards to Sambia in the area of today’s Kaliningrad region, and Lithuania and Latvia, where the amber deposits were much bigger.

The Romans who travelled north for ‘the gold of the Baltic’ would take with them various items to be traded, including fabrics, ceramics, metal objects, trinkets, wool, as well as bronze and brass artefacts. They brought back sacks of amber, animal skins, wax, feathers and beaver coats. Due to increasing intense economic contacts, Roman coins also began to be used in later centuries. It goes without saying that customs law today applies to imports and exports. Similarly, in the Roman Empire there were customs chambers, mainly along the borderline, in trading centres on the Danube and further inland, where the main commercial arteries crossed.

Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, Gdansk became an important centre of amber crafts, and it was there that a wide assortment of jewellery was produced. When the Teutonic Order conquered these lands at the beginning of the fourteenth century, they seized control of the whole crafts industry. The amber collected on the beaches had to be handed over for a fixed fee, such as a keg of beer or two shillings per working day. It was forbidden to move around the beaches without a guard present. Those who disobeyed were flogged or even imprisoned.

Reactivating the old routes

Today, Gdansk has become the world’s amber capital. Inside a museum set up within a historic gothic house, visitors can peruse old and contemporary artworks and jewellery made of "Baltic gold". They can then take a stroll down picturesque Mariacka Street, home to countless galleries and studios where the best of the amber craft traditions are still practiced. Unique jewellery can be purchased there, often unique pieces, amber pendants set in gold, earrings, rings, necklaces, bracelets as well as all kinds of figures and ornaments. 80% of the amber products made in Gdansk end up in China, the largest amber importer in the world. This is hardly surprising, as during the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago, amber was worth more than ten pounds of pure gold.

The manner in which amber is extracted has also remained unchanged for centuries. After every spring or autumn storm, amber hunters appear on the shore, trying to spot where seagulls are circling over “refuse” that the waves have thrown onto the shore. There, amid seaweed, dead fish and plants as well as various kinds of waste, they fish out their prize using nets. Those who are lucky can find impressive, precious specimens, weighing up to a pound. But most have to make do with small fragments of little value, the size of a peach stone. It is estimated that around four tons of amber are collected annually from Polish beaches. Much larger quantities are extracted in Kaliningrad, although Poland also has its fair share, as large deposits of fossilised resin have been found in the Lublin region during shale gas exploration.

Given China’s plans to reactivate the Silk Road, experts in the field believe it is high time to refresh the two most important trade routes once connecting the north and south of the Old Continent: from the Varangians to the Greeks, and the Amber Road. This concept, in addition to the Via Carpathia project to link Klaipeda with Thessaloniki, already has a name – Intermarum. It would connect the Baltic, Aegean, and Black seacoasts, which is Europe’s answer to the New Silk Road. Poland and Belarus would automatically become the core of this region. Interestingly, all the north-south and east-west arteries intersect in Poland. For the first time in several hundred years, Poland can be happy with its geographic location and move beyond its title of Central and Eastern European leader, thinking instead of becoming a geopolitical core, bridging Europe and Asia.

Author: Jacek Pałkiewicz

Source: “Rzeczpospolita”



JACEK PAŁKIEWICZ is a Polish journalist, traveler and explorer. Fellow (by recommendation from Thor Heyerdahl) of the prestigious London-based Royal Geographical Society and numerous other such societies, he is best known for his discovery of the sources of the Amazon River.

Throughout his life, Pałkiewicz collaborated with many of the most respected newspapers, including "Corriere della Sera", "Rzeczpospolita", "Gazzetta dello Sport" and "National Geographic". He also authored more than 30 books documenting his expeditions and became an internationally recognized expert on survival skills in extreme conditions.