CULTURE

Amber in ancient Greek world

In Greek mythology, its origin is linked with Phaethon, who fell into the Padus River while driving the chariot belonging to his father Helios, the sun god, after Zeus struck him with a thunderbolt. His crying sisters were transformed into trees and their tears became amber. In the real world, petrified resin, produced by the coniferous and deciduous trees of the Baltic region over the past 40 to 25 million years, was a precious material that traveled along European rivers to wind up in the Padus and adorn high-society women, provide remedy for illnesses, offer protection to mortals and accompany the dead to the underworld. A journey through time and place between Magna Graecia and Ancient Macedonia, with amber as its base, has just opened at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. The exhibition, titled «The Magic of Amber: Keepsakes and Jewelry in Magna Graecia and Macedonia,» is co-organized by the Potenza Archaeological Museum and the Italian Cultural Institute of Thessaloniki. Featuring 180 amber masterpieces from Magna Graecia that were discovered in hundreds of women’s tombs in Basilicata, southern Italy, that are compared with a far smaller number of amber gems unearthed from ancient Macedonian tombs in Spathes, in the region of Mount Olympus, Sindos, Aghia Paraskevi and Thessaloniki, the exhibition serves to highlight the «links of populations in the Mediterranean basin, central and northern Europe, ancient Greek mythology and posthumous practices of antiquity,» said Maria Rosa Girace, director at the Italian Cultural Institute of Thessaloniki. The display includes belts, earrings, headpieces and small sculptures adorned with the precious petrified resin that accompanied the deceased from between the 8th and 4th centuries BC in many parts of Italy, and, concurrently, in more restricted parts of Macedonia right up until Roman times. Women of antiquity were buried loaded with amber jewelry. Impressive large earrings, necklaces and intricately crafted belts adorned with the yellow, brownish or red stones indicate that amber served as an object signifying wealth and higher class during ancient times. «From ancient times, amber aroused man’s curiosity because of its unique clarity, the electrostatic energy it generates when rubbed, resinous aroma when burnt, lightness and, compared to other stones, quality of warmth when touched. That’s why magical and therapeutic qualities were attributed to amber,» said Polyxeni Adam Veleni, director at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. Amber was first used by jewelrymakers around the 8th century BC. Wider use of the gem began to flourish in Italy during the second half of the 6th century BC, following the arrival of specialized craftsmen from Greek cities in Asia Minor. Amber probably stood as the most characteristic material for sculpture and jewelry in Basilicata for approximately 1,000 years, climaxing between the 7th and 4th centuries BC. The subjects engraved by craftsmen for local populations of pre-Roman Italy highlight the magical and protective qualities that were perceived to be inherent in amber. Winged women, rich in mythological symbolism, depicting the journey to Hades was a favorite theme. The exhibition runs to February 2010.