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Geologic Occurrence of Amber

The composition, color, and other physical properties of amber all vary according to age, conditions of burial, and type of tree that produced the resin. Amber has been found in sediments from the Carboniferous to Quaternary age, but the greatest concentration is in Cretaceous and Tertiary sediments. Below is a geologic time frame relating to amber formation, based on Jean Langenheim's work with amber/botanical affinities reproduced in Rice: Amber the Golden Gem of the Ages, the Polish Academy of Sciences: Amber in Nature, a German publication: Lausitzer Bernstein, and Grimaldi: Amber Window to the Past. Mark Meyer has created a timeline for the presence of amber within the geologic time scale that is worth visiting too!

It is difficult to determine if the amber in sediments is primary or secondary. Primary deposits are insitu. Secondary deposits are where amber is found after transportation by rivers, transgressing seas, glaciers or fluvioglacial waters. Up until 1860 amber procuring methods were off the beaches and with shallow diving. It was obvious that sea amber came from strata beneath the sea and a larger supply could be obtained by dredging or mining.

Most Baltic amber is being produced in the Samland promontory, an area today controlled by Russia, where the strata containing amber is approximately 25-40 meters beneath the soil. A typical, geologic cross-section representing undisturbed, amber-bearing strata along the Baltic coast would include: less than a meter of alluvium; four meters of Pleistocene sand and marl (1-2 mya?); seventeen meters of Tertiary sands and lignite (2-5 mya?); one-three meters of Tertiary coal (2-5 mya?); seventeen-twenty meters of glauconite (5-25 mya?); and finally the Tertiary layer with amber, five to six meters of "blue earth" stratum (25-40 mya?). Below this "blue earth", a gray-green clay is Cretaceous age rock, which in this location is devoid of amber.

Controversy exists regarding the geologic age of some resins, and whether or not all fossil resin may be considered amber. If hardened resin is collected in Tertiary, Quaternary, or Recent primary deposits, not secondary reworked alluvial deposits, that are less than 25-35 million years old, there is a good chance that this fossil resin, or the so-called amber, is in fact copal. Resins that have been dated to be a few hundred to a few million years old are copal not amber.

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