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Fossils in Amber

7 November 2011

We all know about insects in amber, preserved as fossils and highly prized by our ancestors. The trade in Baltic amber during the past is well catalogued in archaeological studies. The entombed insects of Baltic amber go back to the Eocene. Amber comes from the resin of trees – but the species of tree has not been identified. What you might not know is that fossilised tree resin has been found all over the world and from different epochs in time – see the Deposits Magazine (Southwold in Suffolk) www.depositsmag.com/ issue 26 (2011). Amber was also the subject of a talk at UCL in Gower Street a week or so ago, during the annual Festival of Geology (designed to attract young people into the profession). However, there are tricks of the trade it would seem – and insects in amber fetches a princely sum. The speaker at UCL recounted a real life experience when he was looking through a magnifying glass at what he realised was a modern house fly. It had been inserted into the amber as a readily available insect at hand – but it fooled the fossil people for years. 

Some amber goes back to the Dinosaur Age. Cretaceous period amber exists in Canada, the US, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Amber or resin outflows have captured not just flying insects such as flies, lacewings and wasps but also ants, spiders, woodlice, mites and ticks, silverfish, termites, fleas and lice, cockroaches, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, and so on. Forgeries, it seems, are commonplace – and techniques are various. Modern insects may be embedded in copal (a soft form of amber) or in synthetic resins or in a hollowed out piece of genuine amber which is then sealed by natural or synthetic resins. Real amber often preserves the death throes of entombed insects as they struggle to get out of the sticky substance that has entrapped them. Why and how the resin was in such quantity is not mentioned, and what the circumstances might have been. Is amber a signature of catastrophe? 

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