Amber: The Natural Time Capsule

Book Review by Eric J. Hoffman


   Andrew Ross, Firefly Books, 2010. 112 pp, numerous color photographs, hardcover, 10 x 7 3/4 inches, $29.95.



   Ever think you’d read a book written by a paleobotanist curator of fossil arthropods? Well, if you are interested in amber-- especially amber with insect inclusions-- this might be the book.

   Amber, the fossilized resin from ancient trees, is extremely popular for making jewelry. Some of the most fascinating examples contain tiny insects that became trapped in the resin eons ago and are now preserved in the transparent amber. The author has really written two books in one. The first sections give us a very readable introduction to amber: what it is, where it is found, and how it relates to its younger cousin, copal. As a valuable material, one of the earliest to be used for adornment, amber has its share of imitation and fakery. The author outlines several tests for telling real amber from fake and for detecting fabricated insect inclusions.

   The remaining two-thirds of the book is a detailed examination of the ancient inclusions sometimes found in amber: insects, spiders, arthropods, plant debris, and more. In reading this section closely you will absorb a mini-course in entomology and taxonomy as you learn to identify just what bug is staring back at you from inside the amber. Or, you can simply enjoy the fascinating high-magnification photomicrographs of insects trapped in amber. DNA was first recovered from inside amber in 1992, and the author discusses whether or not a real-life Jurassic Park is possible. (The short answer: no.) Aside from its decorative uses in jewelry, amber with inclusions is valuable to scientists studying ancient ecology, diversity, evolution, and extinction.

   Despite the wealth of scientific information in this book, the writing is clear, concise and accessible to the general reader. Those looking for a first book on amber may want to start with Nancy Hopp’s Amber: Jewelry, Art, and Science (reviewed in the Sept/Oct 2009 issue of Adornment). But for readers interested in amber with inclusions, Ross’s book must definitely come next.


Copyright © 2010 by Eric J. Hoffman

Originally published in Adornment magazine, Vol. 8, No. 4, 2010