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Amber - (Large File) Review of Grimaldi's new book

Book:------Amber - Window to the Past
Author:----David Grimaldi
Publisher:--Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Some of you  may be aware of the current amber exhibition at the Natural
History Museum in New  York. At the same time as the launch of this
exhibition David Grimaldi; chairman, associate curator and organiser of
this display has authored and published a new book on amber to compliment
the show.

New books on amber, particularly in English are so rare that I have taken
the liberty of reviewing the work here for those who are interested. My
credentials are thin for this task. I collect amber and have an extensive
collection of pieces with flora and fauna inclusions. I read and collect
articles, books and any work on amber I can get my hands on. I have had
work published myself in my other existence as a management consultant. So
I have some idea of the demands made on writers and authors.  However, with
your forgiveness I submit this review for your interest; 'tis a meagre a
thing, but mine own'.

The book, 'Amber - Window to the Past' is immediately impressive both by
its size and rich colour jacket. The cover shot at first sight might be
some kind of artistic abstract picture, but is actually a photograph of
several insects trapped in a piece Dominican Republic amber, a great
attention grabber.

The book was printed and bound in Japan and this countries predilection for
quality and precision is clearly present in this work. There are 230
illustrations, which include 115 colour plates. Amongst these are some old
line drawings and pictures which have been published in other works. These
seek to illustrate certain inclusions and methods of amber collection. They
help contextualise and place amber in an historical setting and their
presence is understandable. The majority of pictures are however entirely
new, 95+%.

The photography is exemplary. Photographing amber myself I recognise the
difficulties and problems one encounters, but here only the best and most
lavish illustrations have been used. The pages simply ooze class.

The book is principle divided into two sections: Amber in Nature and Amber
in Art.

The nature section begins by illustrating the origins of amber, how it came
into existence, the types of trees which created it and is replete with
interesting quotes and diagrams. Having already mentioned the graphical
content of this work I will emphasise that nearly every page of text is
supported with pictures and drawings which are comprehensible and useful.
They helps immensely with understanding some of the processes and concepts
dealt with in the work. There are the merest handful of areas where both
facing pages are full of text with no graphical content. That in 208 pages
is quite a feat.

The following chapter covers geographical distribution of amber deposits. A
minor exception here is the Isle of Wight amber deposit just off the South
coast of the United Kingdom. This is a rich if very small source of some of
the most ancient amber in the world and yet other than a few papers
published by Dr Edward A. Jarzembowski has received scant to little
attention by the academic press.

The emphasis in this section is given to the major source deposits of
amber, namely the Dominican Republic and the Baltic Coast though other
areas are covered such as Mexico, Burmese, Japanese and the Middle East.

A marvellous picture on page 58 shows quite literally gigantic 'dunes' of
crude amber being bagged after being extracted from the now defunct
Bitterfield mine in Germany. This illustrates better than any list of
figures the vast quantities of amber which must have flowed out of this
general Baltic region. I have seen a very similar photograph taken of the
same scene in the 1995 book 'Stenen som flyter och brinner' authored by Ake
Dahlstrom and Leif Brost of the Swedish Amber Museum. This is a book
written in Swedish, so it has limited distribution. I am glad that Grimaldi
has included this picture here, for those people for whom amber has a
special attraction or interest, it is simple awesome, and I use this word

There then follows a rich selection of photographs illustrating the
different types of inclusions which can be found within amber. Only the
best and rarest are presented here and might give the casual reader the
impression that this type of inclusion is present in nearly every other
piece of amber ever found. Nothing could be further from the truth. These
pieces are only the Creme de la Creme of the amber world. It is only when
flicking through these pictures, time and time again and reading where they
have come from that one realises the gargantuan task Grimaldi undertook in
gathering together so many of these items not only for photography but also
for display in the NHM exhibition.

As well as the normal photographs in this section there is also a range of
electromicrographs. These illustrate the micro preservative qualities of
amber rather than the macro aspects which the normal pictures do so well.
This leads logically into a section on DNA and its presence within such
well preserved inclusions.

This latter issue seems to have become a hot topic amongst many
journalists, no doubt inspired by Crichton's Jurassic Park and all the
accompanying publicity. What frankly is more interesting I believe are the
deductions and insights which can be drawn from the range of inclusions in
amber about the ancient forests, their ecological workings, the animals
present and the environmental conditions which existed. This too is also
addressed in the book with a section on the ancient communities of the
amber forests and woodlands.

A final chapter in this section addresses amber forgeries and is especially
interesting showing the lengths to which some people have gone in creating
fake or counterfeit amber pieces with large or rare inclusions. This
chapter draws on an earlier article written by Grimaldi et al in the NHM
Journal which specifically addresses amber forgeries. This earlier work
shows in even greater detail the deviousness of some amber forgers.
However, the best photographs have been transferred to the book, with the
exception of a Tarantula allegedly found in Dominican amber but which the
author was unable to tests for its authenticity. The lack of confirmation
one way or the other no doubt accounts for its omission from this volume.

The second half of the book looks at Amber in Art. The initial part of this
section begins by looking at the uses of amber through the ages starting at
the Mesolithic Period. This whole section has a predominantly European
slant. Here again are some unique illustrations and diagrams. The famous
Hove cup from the Booth Museum in Brighton, United Kingdom is shown. It
differs from many I have seen in the way the lighting has been set up to
illustrate its translucence and the fine craftsmanship needed to have
produced this piece. The text goes into some depth on the histories of
amber and gives a broad though not heavily detailed account of its
prominence in antiquity. It makes for good light reading without becoming
bogged down in too many dates or claustrophobic details.

The segment on Medieval and Renaissance amber shows some examples of
woodcut prints detailing how amber was obtained in the Baltic but only one
17 century piece of jewellery is actually illustrated.

The years leading to the beginning of this century are well structured.
Ample information provides a rich description of the uses and the levels to
which amber in art aspired during these years. Nothing is present on the
contemporary use of amber in art and jewellery and would have been

As DNA in amber has become a focus for many people so too has the 'amber
room', an 18 century concoction of the Prussian and later Russian nobility.
In essence this was a room completely covered in amber which mysteriously
went missing during the second world war. Russian craftsmen are now in the
slow and laborious process of re-creating this masterpiece from old
photographs and diagrams. Some of the first pictures I have ever seen of
their efforts appear in this book and show the amazing level of opulence
they have achieved to date.

A final chapter looks at the uses of amber in art outside the European
context and is illustrated with examples of Chinese, Japanese and Asian

Would I recommend the book? Absolutely, the work is of a nature that a
laymen could sit down and read it from cover to cover without becoming lost
or disinterested. Nor is this to say the work is of an all too fundamental
or basic nature. I believe a fair balance has been achieved in this work
with sufficient detail and lavish illustration to make this a must for any
person keen or interested in amber.

The only comparable work available at the moment is George Poinar's 'Life
in Amber'. This leans slightly further in the direction of individuals with
a more than passing interest in amber and is perhaps written in parts with
these kind of people in mind.

Grimaldi has excelled himself here with a book for all people who would
like to know more about amber. I hope this is not the only book Grimaldi
will write on amber and it is only the first of many.

Garry Platt.

Garry Platt
(Deputy Director - CMTC)

E Mail Address:     garry@gplatt.demon.co.uk