“It has taken millions of years to make this beautiful thing,” says our guide, her voice soft with the lilt of the islands. “Imagine—a tree dripped down resin so many, many years ago, and look!”
In her hand lies an oval of amber. It catches the light so subtly that it seems to glow with an inner fire. We look at it in admiration, for here in the CaribbeanWorldAmberMuseum there is much to enchant. All around us lie encased amber specimens from all over the world: honey-gold specimens from the Baltic, deep red pieces from Yucatan. Our guide explains that some pieces of amber are 250,000,000 years old. “We don’t have any such pieces here,” she hastens to add, “but those old pieces come from Bavaria. And… do you know that there has been amber found in your own state? Yes, in North Carolina! Pieces that date back to the Miocene.”
We have stumbled into the AmberMuseum by accident. On a Caribbean cruise that has taken us out of touch with the world for two weeks, we have been visiting Blackbeard’s castle and have been wandering from one small museum to another on the way to the street far below.
I for one am delighted. I’m not sure what my fascination with amber comes from—certainly not from the fossilized insects that many pieces contain. Perhaps my interest stems from the fact that the lovely object I hold in my hand was many millennia ago the life-blood of a tree. Perhaps that is what gives it its mystique, makes it seem alive.
Voices of the past
Captured in this silken orb
Our guide has a spark of mischief in her dark eyes. “Look at this,” she says, and offers a magnifying glass. Mike takes a look first, bursts out laughing as he hands me the glass. It can’t be, but… oh, yes it can.
“A cockroach?” There is a perfect specimen of that loathsome insect encased forever in a prism of Baltic amber. The museum attendant giggles at the face I make.
“Yes… can you believe it? But,” she adds with a shudder, “I would never want to wear that piece.”
She leads us to another case which displays pale green ovals, circles and squares formed into rings, brooches, pendants. “Caribbean amber,” our attendant says, “This type of amber was only discovered very recently—only ten years ago.” I ask about the soft, almost translucent color and she explains that this is because of contact with volcanic action.
“Amber takes its color from a number of things,” she says and holds up a long oval tube that is the color of cream and just as opaque. “Water,” she says. “This amber came in contact with a lot of water.”
We have reached the front of the museum, and our guide points out that almost everything in the museum is for sale. Mike picks up a large chunk of amber which is as thick and as wide as a man’s palm. It hangs on a thick golden chain. “Isn’t it a gorgeous thing?” She asks. “It’s priced cheaply–for $1,800.”
Mike moves the piece to catch the light. “Look… can you see a face?”
We—our guide and I—lean closer. Sure enough, there in the honeyed depths of the gem is the smoky caricature of a human face. Mike moves it again, and another face—a different one—appears.
Our guide sucks in a breath. “Maybe it’s haunted,” Mike jokes. I laugh, but our guide doesn’t.
“I never saw that before,” she says in an awed voice.
Of course these are shadows caused by oxidation and polymerization and the countless years that have passed in order to form tree sap into a thing of beauty. Still, the writer in me is intrigued. Where did they come from, these ghost-pictures? What stirred the pine sap as it settled? Where did this piece of amber lie while the earth cooled and the great, glowing sun and the huge pale moon looked down on a world which we will never know?
The thoughts stay with me as we leave the museum, and here awaits the piece de resistance… an amber waterfall! Water trickles slowly over a wall studded with chunks of every kind of amber. White, red, green, golden… each hoarding within itself a fragment of our world’s history.