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Amber and beaver furs: Trade with raw material for the production of luxury goods

Lecture held by Dieter Quast, Mainz

This lecture compares two sorts of trade with raw materials. Though they are as well from very different regions as from different millennia it seems that they have something in common. Amber, being in fact a fossil resin and not a gemstone, was very valuable in the Roman Empire. Pliny the Elder complained in the 1st century AD that a small figure of amber is as expensive as a slave. Natural scientific analyses had shown that the amber used in the Roman Empire was of Baltic origin and was traded as raw material. In Carnuntum c. 40km south-east of Vienna it crossed the Roman limes and followed the so called Amber Road up to Aquileia. There the workshops had been to produce the well-known little objects of art, a sort of expensive knick-knack. The existence of an Amber Road north of the Roman limes is often supposed, but not for sure. Also uncertain is how the trade was organised north of the Roman border in the Barbaricum.

Analysing some late pre-roman Iron Age deposits with over a tonne of raw amber in Silesia and comparing them with Roman imports from the south gave some insight into the contact zones. Silesia seems to be a sort of “middle ground”. This terminus was used to describe cultural contacts between the native Algonquian peoples and the French in the 17th/early 18th century in the Great Lakes Region. But the “middle ground” was also the background for the trade with beaver furs. And those furs had been a luxury good for Europe, where they have been used by hatters to make beaver hats.

Amber trade is documented mostly by archaeological source, beaver furs trade by written source. The comparison will allow to take a fresh look at the amber trade.

Lecture held during the conference “Gemstones in the first Millennium AD. Mines, Trade, Workshops and Symbolism.” October 21st, 2015 at the Roemisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz (Germany).