Amber is mentioned even in the 10th century BC in Assyrian cuneiform. It says that in the sea, where Northern winds are changing (Persian Gulf), his (king’s) merchants gather pearls, and in the sea, where Northern Star shines (Baltic), they fish amber. In about 600 years BC Ezekiel describes king Tyre’s clothing decorations, and mentions amber jewellery. Amber is very often mentioned in Greek literature. It was mentioned by Homer, Tales from Millet, Hasid, Sophocles, Aristhofan, Xenophont, Plato, Aristotle and other Greek oracles. Roman philosopher and orator Deon Chrisostom (Gold-mouthed) wrote that in the north flows the river where there is as much amber on its coast as small stones in Rome. Some present day historians say that Chrisostom had in mind Vistula or Nemunas. The first who mentioned Lithuanian tribe name was Cornelius Tacitus. In his work “Germania” he described Aistians and amber in the following manner: in the right corner Swebian (Baltic) sea washes shores of Aistian tribes, whose customs and clothing are like Swebian and the language is more close to British. They are praising to Mother of gods. They wear statuettes of wild boars that serve like weapons and protect from everything, they protect worshipper of goddess even in a welter of enemies. Swords they use rarely, usually only sticks. Cereals they grow more diligently than lazy Germans. They also search around the sea; in shoals and on its shores they are only ones that gather amber and call it “glesum”.
Until the 13th century amber was gathered on the sea coast, later on local people learned to fish it with long-crested landing-nets in the sea. Usually people worked at night time: they used to light up pitched barrel on a high hill or in the tree to brighten the coast. After some time people began to fish amber with special nets and hooks in shoal places. Fishers of the Curonian lagoon gathered amber from the bottom of the sea with kesele – from double bottomed boats with net and hooks people broke the bottom of the sea and moved pieces of amber. They were lifted from the bed of the sea and got to pulling out net. This gathering of amber was used only in the Curonian lagoon.
However, it was not always allowed to gather and fish amber. In the 13th century amber extraction was monopolized by crusaders. Local people, who used to gather and sell amber for many years, lost their right to do that – all collected amber was given to authorities. It was even forbidden to walk by the sea side. Later in Prussia, until the beginning of the 19th century, there used to be special Amber Court, during which people were cruelly punished for amber stealing: amber thief was put in a pillory, birched, deported from the country, hung or even broken on a wheel. Barons of Kuršas also used farmers and fishermen to collect amber and give it to authorities. Forest guard of the coast made farmers and fishermen to collect amber also and followed if there were no strangers by the sea. An alien caught near the coast had to be punished no mater if he or she had not stolen anything. Farmers and their grown-up sons were forced to claim that they will collect amber and give it all to authorities. Father had to watch that “wife, children or my people or somebody else neither secretly nor openly take even the smallest piece of amber”. When sons became 18, they promised that “if I see or notice that my father, mother, brothers, sisters, masters, workers or other people abuse or are going to abuse amber, I promise to forbid them to do that and I will not make any concessions to them”. For a farmer the biggest encouragement was exemption from military service and the biggest penalty was to be recruited.
Since the beginning of the 17th century and especially during the 19th century, when diving costume was invented, divers simply collected pieces of amber from the bed of the sea.
There was lots of amber found by deepening the seaway in the Curonian lagoon near Juodkrantė, in 1854. After that amber was started to be dug out in Lithuania. Two businessmen of Jewish nationality – Stantien and Becker – founded their firm. It soon got rich and since 1883 amber was dug out mechanically by steam suction dredgers. Here famous Klebs collection was collected and attracted attention of world archaeologists. This place and amber itself became a point of interest. Life of industry burst. From 30 to 85 tones of amber were dug out every year. After some time the businessmen bought one more amber mine in Palvininkai (present day Jantarnyj, Kaliningrad region) and built amber treatment enterprise. It is not a surprise that two merchants became one of the richest industry men in Eastern Prussia because 90% of all amber in the world is in Palvininkai. Amber is now dug out in open quarry by modern mining technique. However, the recourses are decreasing, and numbers prove that: at the end of the 20th century 500-800 tones of amber were dug here, and now it decreased to about 150 tones per year.
At the end of the 19th century the rich merchants left the reservoir of the Curonian lagoon. There were trials to renew amber mining but in primitive methods and unsuccessfully. Count Tiškevičius tried to mine amber in marshes near Palanga. Though there were only several hundred kilograms of amber dug out, but during the work there were quite a few archaeological findings discovered (Treasure of Palanga).
Later, during the deepening of Klaipėda’s seaway, amber layer was touched. It is assumed that it takes about 3000 ha and there are about 112 tones of amber. People sometimes find amber when they dig out potatoes in the fields formed by lagoon thrown slit. Though various amber collection methods were applied, still the most popular method is to collect amber on the sea coast.
Today amber fishers gather amber on the coast of the Baltic Sea near Karklė or Melnragė. However, luck does not smile all the time. Amber is only thrown in piles of polished sticks from the sea (the bigger are the sticks, the more possibility to find amber, shells, different remains of sea animals and plants). The best throw is after big storms, when streams move amber deposits from the depth of the sea. The coming throw could be seen from dark spots of seaweeds and sticks in the water and flying gulls above them. When fair south-western wind blows and waves throw a lot of sea rubbish, it is better to use landing-net by sticking it to waves, wishing to catch amber together with the sea trash. After that all caught things are shaken on the shore and pieces of amber picked. Amber catcher V. Stripeikaitis shares his experience: if you saw a big piece of amber in water but you did not manage to catch it, that piece of amber would come back to the sea and you would never see it again.
Amber Extraction in Lithuania
Digging and Fishing Amber near Juodkrantė
Speaking about amber as Lithuanian gold, we may say that it can be found in many places. It was already known in prehistoric times that the biggest amber sources were in the Baltic regions. It was thought that amber was a present only of the Baltic Sea. However, lately amber was dug out from the ground. Nobody analysed where it was excavated and how much of it was found. But still we cannot pass by not mentioning amber from the Curonian Lagoon.
When sand of Neringa dunes filled the lagoon, people had to deepen it between Naglis and Klaipėda towns for shipping. During the deepening, a layer of amber was found near Juodkrantė. Old Curlandians told such a story:
One vegetable merchant from Klaipėda sailed in the Curonian Lagoon for many years with a big sailing boat with covered top and cabins at the ends. He used to buy vegetables from vegetable growers near the coasts and used to bring them to Klaipėda’s citizens.
One day when he sailed to Klaipėda a huge storm burst. The merchant could not continue his trip and had to wait when storm came down near Draverna, the edge of the Curonian Lagoon. It came down. When he raised the anchor, he also raised goose egg sized yellow piece of amber. This event encouraged him to quit vegetable trading and start digging amber.
One day several hired men sailed with the same boat to the same place and started to dig amber. In both sides of the boat they casted anchors. One piece of the rope they fixed to the net bucket and the other fixed to the spin on the deck. They bowed to the God and started to dig.
The fishermen of the Curonian Lagoon saw that and started to laugh at them. But when luck started to smile, the laughers began to work for the merchant. He was digging there until the authorities of Prussia forbade doing that. The merchant was a Jew. He did not calm down until he found the way to make up with authorities. According to the agreement, he had to dig a channel for shipping in the Curonian Lagoon. The merchant had to put the excavated ground on the coast. He deepened the channel about 30 metres from Naglis Horn to Klaipėda and put the excavated ground on the bays of the Curonian Lagoon.
There worked 19-22 dredgers and over 1000 people. Sifted ground was thrown to the coasts by excavators. At that time there was huge amounts of amber exacavated.
One kilometre to the north from Juodkrantė there was still left an amber harbour. Also, there was settled fishing supervisor Jurgis Vėsulas in a big two-storey wooden building.
When the Curonian Lagoon got frozen and fishing decreased, fishermen from Juodkrantė excavated amber during the day time, and in the evenings knitted nets. Not less than 3 people formed a group of amber diggers.
Men, women and free from school children went to dig out amber. Groups used to choose a place were the ships sailed, and cut a meter depth and 10-20 meters length hole. On one end of the hole they fixed a spin with net bucket and dug from the bottom of the Lagoon sand and blue clay, and searched for Lithuanian gold. Digging was not always worth to do that but fishermen used to say: “It is better than nothing”.
However, there were times when one day of excavations paid for the whole winter work. What is more, after huge storms they rushed to the coast to gather pieces of amber. Sometimes it was thrown out with seaweeds, wooden sticks, mashed bark lefts or other stuff. Fishermen enclosed with nets the coast after storms and pulled out amber with various rubbish.
Amber was collected only by those who belonged to amber gatherers membership. Each of them paid one Litas of taxes got a metallic sign, which had to have while gathering amber. All the found amber had to be sold to amber collecting office. Jews bought it privately and paid higher price, so they got bigger part of gathered amber.
Sea shore near Karklininkai is very stony. Fishermen there used to fish amber during midsummer. In the sunny day, when the surface of the sea glittered like mirror, they searched for amber within stones sailing by small boats. In several meters depth amber looked as if it was green-coloured. They caught stuck pieces of amber with special hooks, rolled it to the net bucket and pulled out. This process of gathering amber was more as entertainment but sometimes the results were quite good.
Moreover, it sometimes happened that during fishing, pieces of amber almost of horse hoof or sheep head size got stuck in the nets. Unfortunately, such luck was very rare.
Alfonsas Nevardauskas, “Pajūriais, pamariais”, Čikaga, “Morkūno spaustuvė”, 1963
Amber Extraction in the Curonian Lagoon near Juodkrantė
In 1855, seeking to improve transportation between Klaipėda and Konigsberg, the channel was deepened in the Curonian Lagoon. While dredging, the dredgers pulled out amber together with sand (Klebs 1882:2, 1883:22; Slotta 1996:191). In 1854, Friedrich Wilhelm Stantien (1817-1891) got rights to deepen the channel of the Curonian Lagoon and extract amber (Schlicht 1924:159; Brekenfeld 1996: 278). In 1858, F. W. Stantien together with Moritz Becker established the firm “Stantien&Becker” in Klaipėda (Breckenfeld 1996:279), which was given rights not only to deepen the channel, but also to extract amber from all Eastern Prussia in 1860-1861 (Andree 1937: 92-95; Slotta 1996:191,192). F. W. Stantien’s work was vivid: he had a ship, restaurant, used to fish, and had a holding in the old town of Klaipėda and a windmill in Rumpiškės (present day a part of Klaipėda) (Brekenfeld 1996:278). Since the beginning of 1852 F. W. Stantien searched for amber in his holding and in a meadow near Priekulė (Klebs 1882:2; 1883:22, 23; Brekenfeld 1996:278). The second establisher of “Stantien&Becker” was a merchant from Gdansk Moritz Becker (1830-1899) (Kurschat 1988:345; Brekenfeld 1996:278; Ritzkowski 2001:234). There is also mentioned one more person – Cohn – but he did not participate in further work of this firm (Klebs 1882:2).
In 1865, the firm “Stantien&Becker” searched for amber unsuccessfully near Priekulė, the mentioned place was between so called Olandų Kepurė (Dutch’s Hat) and Klošio Forest (Andree 1937:92; Kaškelis 1933:15, 37; Kurschat 1988:345). It is hard to say, if that was the place to the north from Priekulė and so called Bernsteingruben (germ. “Amber Mine”). One more unsuccessful try of “Stantien&Becker” was to dig amber near Baltiskij (ex Pillau, lith. Piliava).
In 1860-1899 the firm “Stantien&Becker” was amber extraction leader and controlled amber trading in the whole world (Andree 1937:184, Tabella1; Slotta 1996:191; Ganzelewski 1996:224). Although the country constantly raised taxes to hold this business, it was worthy. In 1897 the firm had three big and 22 small dredgers, 60 diving equipments; later its wealth raised a lot (Schlicht 1924:159,160; Slotta 1996:191; Breckenfeld 1996:279). Both owners made history as the establishers of “Amber Empire”. However, the young and energetic M. Becker took the business into his hands. In 1868 F. W. Stantien sold part of his firm for 2 million marks (Brekenfeld 1996:282). Between 1870 and 1880 “Stantien&Becker” office was moved to Konigsberg. All in all, this firm dug out amber for about 40 years. In 1899 M. Becker sold the firm and its museum to the state (Breckenfeld 1996:279-282).
For the very first time amber was begun to be dug out by deepening the channel in the northern part of Juodkrantė in 1855. Amber was dug in 1860-1861, but continuous excavations of amber started on the 1st of May in 1862 (Klebs 1882:2, 3; Bezzenberger 1889:289). The firm was located in the northern part of Juodkrantė, which is now known as Amber bay. Amber was begun to be dug out in this part of the bay. A settlement for amber diggers was established and called “diggers’ colony” or “California” (Glagau 1970:308-316; Schlicht 1924:159). There were several buildings constructed for the workers (Klebs 1883:9-34; Glagau 1970:308-316). In 1890 Vilius Kalvaitis visited amber mines. Unfortunately, only amber excavation process and technical aids that the firm used is mentioned. (Kalwaitis 1910:III). The firm used seven steamboats, 19 stem dredgers called “baggers”. 500-600 people dug amber in three shifts until the Lagoon got frozen (Kalwaitis 1910:III; Schlicht 1924:159,160; Glagau 1970:306-316). Every day after work, the workers were checked whether they had not stolen any amber. If that happened, a person was fired from the very well paid job (Glagau 1970:312,313). When extraction of amber spread the area of digging amber near Juodkrantė got bigger. Amber was dug out from the bed of the sea with steam dredgers from the 4-10 meters depth, 2226 meters length and 230 meters width zone (Schlicht 1924:161).
Excavated amber from Juodkrantė for assortment was brought to Klaipėda and Konigsberg. Part of amber was exported to Great Britain and Africa: these countries liked bright transparent amber (Glagau 1970:313,314). Amber excavated in Palvininkai, reached Cairo, Bombay, Calcutta, Tokyo, New York (Brekenfeld 1996:280). Very big pieces of amber, which had collecting value, were sold for very high price – 400-1000 thalers (Glagau 1970: 314,315). In 1864 there were only 17000 kg of amber dug, but its extraction near Juodkrantė increased and in 1868 it reached 94000 kg (Schlicht 1924:160). In 1862-1890 there were approximately 75000 kg of raw amber dug out per year, and the benefit was about 180000 thalers (Klebs 1883:17-20; Schlicht 1924:160; Slotta 1996:192). However, since 1880 Juodkrantė’s mine a lot less amber, so on the 30th of November of 1890 the firm “Stantien&Becker” terminated amber extraction contract (Klebs 1883:17-20; Schlicht 1924:160; Slotta 1996:192). Since 1891 dredgers stopped working. In 1899 the firm was sold to the state, and in a year amber extraction was completely stopped (Schlicht 1924:160). Thus, amber near Juodkrantė was intensively excavated for 28 years.
The development of Juodkrantė, from a little fishermen town to the resort, where many famous people used to rest here and one of them was famous archaeologist Adalbert Bezzenberger, is closely related to amber extraction (MAB, f.12-1245, b.8,9, l.19). “Stantien&Becker” joined the development of Juodkrantė. In 1880 the firm financially (2000 marks) helped to build the harbour, supported a school for amber miners’ children and a doctor, and M. Becker presented organs for a new church (Schlicht 1924:161; Brekenfeld 1996:281; Strakauskaitė 2001:43,70).
A. Bliujienė, Lietuvos priešistorės gintaras, Vilnius, „Versus aureus“, 2007
Amber Extraction in Juodkrantė
However, the biggest attention it gained when the merchant M. Becker and hotel owner W. Stantien firm started to dig amber in the Curonian Lagoon, and the material was found in 1858 when they deepened the channel from Klaipėda to Nida. In 1870-1885 there was amber fever: dredgers worked day and night, from early spring to late autumn. Hundreds of workers came to Juodkrantė. There were barracks, workshop and special harbour built for them. There still is a bay called Amber bay. Till 1900, the end of the firm, about 2250 tones of amber was dug out. Dredged up ground was banked up on the coast and widened it by 50 meters.
“Kings of amber” found richer land and stopped to dig out amber from Juodkrantė. They bought the farm from baron Golc in Palvininkai (present day Jantarnij), established amber mines, where industrial method was applied. They constructed amber processing factory near the mine.
M. Telksnytė, Kuršių nerija, Vilnius, “Mintis“, 1979
In Lithuania amber was begun to be excavated in 1854. In Klaipėda two merchants Stantien and Becker established the firm “Stantien&Becker”. In the middle of the 19 century this firm searched for amber in Priekulė’s region near Pempių and Lukšių villages in the marches, but they did not find any mines. Firstly, amber was dug out manually near the coast and 7.5 tones were mined per year. Since 1833 the firm started to excavate amber from the bed of the Lagoon with steam baggers. From 26.5 to 85.5 tones were excavated per year. The owners of the firm got very rich and bought amber mines in Palvininkai and amber treatment workshop; they became the richest industrialists in Eastern Prussia. In 1899 amber extraction in the Lagoon was stopped by German government, though the firm prepared the land of 3000 ha for amber exploitation. Since Palvininkai amber mines worked intensively, it is possible that the government did not want to decrease price by overstock market with raw amber.
The “Fish and Amber” company put efforts to renew amber extraction from the Curonian Lagoon in 1921. In 1928-1929 the corporation “Amber” tried to do the same. The first one went bankrupt before it started its activities, and the second one excavated 2 tones and stopped its work after it went short of money and did not receive government support.
Vladas Katinas, Baltijos gintaras, Vilnius, „Mokslas“, 1983 (12-13 ps)
Amber Extraction in Priekulė and Juodkrantė
Industrial amber extraction developed near Priekulė. In the middle of the 19th century amber search was started here. Amber sources were half a mile to the west from Priekulė, not far from Pempių village and southern edge of the Klooscherner wood. That is how in 1856 amber brought to Sperber, the landlord of Priekulė, profit of 2000 thalers. Friedrich Wilhelm Stantien, who also owned a windmill in Rumpiškės, learned about it and in 1857 started digging out amber in the meadow near Šūdnagių near Priekulė. The next year in Juodkrantė, while deepening the channel, a big amount of amber was pulled out. Stantien got a licence from government for amber extraction. In 1860 he established the firm “Stantien&Becker” with his ex-worker Moritz Becker. For amber excavation they used steam dredgers. After some years here worked 500 workers (…). In the middle of the 19th century, about 1860, amber mining was discontinued in Priekulė. Industrial amber extraction ended in Juodkrantė, in 1890.
From the book “Prökuls. Kirchspiel und Marktort im Memelland”, Iserlohn, 1984
by Rasa Krupavičiūtė