Home » Ancient amber discovery: Tracing distant origins beneath the great ziggurat of Aššur

Ancient amber discovery: Tracing distant origins beneath the great ziggurat of Aššur

by News Staff

In 1914, a discovery was made under the great ziggurat of Aššur in Iraq—a foundation deposit dating back to approximately 1800-1750 BC yielded two beads. These beads, which were found during excavations conducted by the Royal Museums in Berlin and the German Orient Society, have recently been identified as amber through the use of Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR). Notably, these beads represent some of the earliest known specimens of amber in southwest Asia and are among the most geographically distant findings from the Baltic region, where amber is commonly found.

Aššur, now known as Qala’at Sherqat, is situated on the western bank of the Tigris River in Iraq and holds great significance as an archaeological site in northern Mesopotamia. The settlement dates back to the 3rd millennium BC, and by the late 19th century BC, it had become the center of an Assyrian territorial state.

The excavation in Aššur, led by Walter Andrae (1875–1956) and carried out between 1903 and 1914, focused on studying the great ziggurat—a stepped temple tower. In April 1914, the excavators widened an existing old tunnel in their quest to explore the foundation layers. During this process, they uncovered thousands of beads made from materials such as shell, stone, glass, and pottery. These artifacts were found directly on the bedrock beneath the initial layer of mudbricks. As per the agreements regarding the distribution of finds, some of the artifacts made their way into the collection of the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin.

Among the various beads discovered, two disk-shaped ones stood out due to their material composition. In 2019, researchers from the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, the Martin-Luther-University of Halle-Wittenberg, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin re-examined fragments of these beads. The Rathgen-Forschungslabor of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin—Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz employed Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR) to analyze the samples. Despite significant weathering, the spectra obtained from the beads closely matched those of Baltic amber (known as succinite), leading to the conclusion that the amber found beneath the great ziggurat of Aššur likely originated from the Baltic or North Sea region. These beads can be dated to approximately 1800 BC or the first half of the 18th century BC.

Long-distance contacts in the Early Bronze Age

The discovery of these beads holds significant historical value as they are among the earliest instances of amber found in southwest Asia, and they are also remarkably distant from the Baltic region, where amber is commonly sourced.

Before approximately 1550 BC, amber was exceptionally rare in the Mediterranean and Near East regions. It was predominantly found in high-status contexts, which suggests that its scarcity can be attributed to the control exerted by the Central German Únětice culture. This culture, renowned for its wealth and influence, can be seen in the opulent burial sites of princely tombs such as Leubingen, Helmsdorf, and Bornhöck, as well as the famous Nebra Sky Disk. These people controlled the trade routes through which amber reached southern regions.

The scarcity of early 2nd millennium BC amber findings further implies that they were likely exclusive gifts presented by well-traveled individuals from Central or Western Europe to the elite in the south. However, with the decline of the Únětice culture around 1550 BC, the dynamics changed, and extensive trade networks were established, resulting in the availability of amber in larger quantities in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

The findings and analysis of these beads have been published in the journal Acta Archaeologica, providing valuable insights into the historical significance of amber in the ancient world.

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