Amber routes

From Neolithic times, raw amber and amber produce from the eastern Baltic, including Lithuania, served as an important trade object with the northern and southern neighbours. To reflect the unique role played by amber in trade relations over long centuries, scientists have coined a special term of “Amber Route”. The “route” represented several branches already in the Bronze Age. The archaeologist E. Jovaiša identifies one key amber trade route that started on the Baltic coast and led to the lower Vistula River. Then it proceeded down the Warta River and the higher Oder River, or along the banks of these, across Bohemia, Moravia and reached the Danube. Here the amber road forked, one leg leading to Greece, the Peloponnesus and Crete (beads of Baltic amber were found in the tombs from Mycenaean culture dating back to 1600 –1500 BC.). The second branch of the route led across the Alps into the northern Italy. Yet another land amber road led from the shores of the Baltic Sea as far as the Dniester, through the mouth of the Danube into the Caucasus, reaching into the eastern regions of the Black Sea and the south-western parts of the Caspian Sea. The travellers of these routes reached as far as Asia Minor.

In the first through the third century, “amber route” represented, speaking in modern terms, an entire industry. Huge treasures of raw Baltic amber have been found between Wroclaw and Partynica along the Oder River in Lower Silesia. It is believed that animal fur and hide, honey and wax were traded with the Romans along the same routes. In exchange, bronze, silver and gold coins, brass and glass vessels, ceramic items, glass and enamel beads, brooches decorated in enamel and brass, also non-ferrous metals, like copper, zinc, tin and silver were imported into the Baltic lands from the provinces of the Roman Empire. The main type of metal, iron was produced locally by the Baltic tribes as early as 10 and 40, from the bog ores. In the third century the land amber route declined in importance giving way to sea trade preferred by all the peoples of the Baltic region. In the third – fifth centuries, the eastern roads were used for trade with eastern neighbours. The third and fourth centuries saw trade links expand with the Scandinavians, especially with the island of Gotland.

Amber, alongside with imported articles, was an object of trade not only with the Roman provinces, but also within the Baltic lands. Amber jewellery was not an exclusively female ornament; it was worn also by men and boys, even though women’s graves yield more amber artefacts. Often beads of amber were used in strings. Amber beads were combined with beads of glass and enamel, also with brass spiral pendants.

In the Late Iron Age amber was costly merchandise in the Roman Empire. Thus, only small amount of it was spared for the local market. The situation changed in the Middle Iron Age. After the fall of the Roman Empire, from the second half of the fifth century, the amount of amber is seen to have increased in all burial monuments in Lithuania. Amber beads-amulets are being excavated in the graves of men and women. Women’s graves are often found to contain amber spindles among other utensils. The burials from the seventh till the ninth century contain fewer imported items. At that time the previously established trade routes with Western and Southern Europe were temporarily disrupted. On the other hand, locally made amber products are seen to have increased. In the second half of the eighth century the crisis of the trade routes was overcome, and the coastal areas of Lithuania saw a return of imported items. Between the eighth and the ninth centuries, beads of coloured glass were spreading rapidly, while part of the coastal population started making brooches fashioned after the Scandinavian tradition. In the middle of the first millennium efforts were put to keep up close connections with the former areas of antique culture, but the northern trade route was growing increasing important. Large trade centres emerged in Northern Europe, Birka in Scandinavia, Visbi in Gotland, Haitebu in Jutland. These centres conducted trade not only with Western Europe; from the peoples on the eastern shores of the Baltic they bought fur and wax, articles of great demand and sold weapons, ornaments, riding gear and raw materials.

The Danube River played an important role in trade from the ninth until the thirteenth century, connecting the Baltic lands with Eastern Europe as well as Kiev’s Russia with Western Europe.

(Prepared on the basis the articles:
Eugenijus Jovaiša. Baltai ir „Gintaro kelias“ // Lietuva iki Mindaugo. Vilnius, 2003;
Paulius Mudėnas. Prekyba ir prekybos keliai // Lietuva iki Mindaugo. Vilnius, 2003)



     ©  Lithuanian Art Museum,                                                                                                                                                                           Page update 07.08.11
     ©  Palanga Botanical Park,                                                                                                   
     © Information Centre of Samogitian Cultural Association