Early Neolithic Amber Hoard CT Scanned

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The Skalk article I mentioned the other day (with the rubber goat) tells the story of an unusual find made in northernmost Jutland in the summer of 2005. Peter Jensen was stripping some land of topsoil for gravel extraction when, from the vantage point of his machine, he spotted something interesting on the ground. Jensen happens to have much experience of machine operation at archaeological digs. It turned out that he had managed to identify a pit in the subsoil filled with thousands of amber beads: an Early Neolithic votive deposit datable around 3500 cal BC.

Most votive amber deposits have been found in wetlands where the amber is often very well preserved. In this case, however, the pit was dug into gravel, and the amber was in very poor shape: in fact, falling to pieces. After Jensen called in the archaeological cavalry, the deposit was wrapped in plaster and taken indoors. What were my Danish colleagues supposed to do with a six-litre volume of crumbling amber? Taking it apart and trying to stabilise every individual bead would take ages and cost an enormous amount of money. And in its corroded state, the find still wouldn’t be much fun to see for the museum visitors. Still, archaeologists wanted to now what kind of beads were in the deposit.

The conservators at the National Museum then had a bright idea. They took the soil block to a forensics lab, where the whole thing was run through a CT scanner with a 0.5 mm slice distance. Presto: they now have an exact 3D model of the deposit showing every individual bead, and they have abandoned all thoughts of taking the block apart. Notably, the find contains several bead spacers, bar-shaped gadgets with six or seven holes intended to collect the separate bead strings of a large amber pectoral.

And guess whom we have to thank for all this? Messrs Lennon & McCartney! Explains Wikipedia: “The CT scanner was ‘the greatest legacy’ of The Beatles, with the massive profits resulting from their record sales enabling EMI to fund scientific research, including into computerised tomography.”

The National Museum in Copenhagen has put a lot of information on the find on-line, including video clips where the viewer travels horizontally or vertically through the deposit, a few CT slices at a time from one end to the other. Cool stuff!


Bech, Jens-Henrik. 2008. Ravfangst. Skalk 2008:1. Højbjerg.


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15 thoughts on “Early Neolithic Amber Hoard CT Scanned

  1. All what I wrote was lost, gee I hate it.

    I wrote about Tacitus in “Germania” chapter 46, he wrotes that the people on the coast where amber is found, didn’t understand the value but sold it to the romans in its raw state. But if they did pearls thousand years before the romans they surely knew the value. Very interesting.

    A big pearl of amber is found in a stoneage grave in England and it must have been brought there when it still was land between England and the continent 6000 BC, the scholars think. I can search the text later if anyone is interested.

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  2. Beads I mean, not pearls…I found the english stoneagegrave. In Cheddar Gorge of Somerset in England, there was a huge cavern. There was a skeleton, seated, nine thousand years old. The place was namned Gough’s Cave after a victorian seacaptain, who found it.
    There they found a piece of amber, and when it w tested with infrared light, they saw thatt it came from the Baltic Coast, and not from any english beach. It was traded at least twelve and a half thousand years ago.

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  3. Coincidentally, the diner I’m sitting at had The Beatles playing at the time I began reading this article. Life is funny like that sometimes.

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  4. And everyone who listened to the earlier Beatles’ albums on RCA turntables helped to pay for RCA’s developments in and commercialization of transmission and scanning electron microscopy, two more important techniques in both medicine and archaeology.

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  5. Cheddar man has mtDNA U5. 9000 years old. The Saami in Scandinavia have 40 – 50 % of mtDNA U5. There are also saamis in Estonia. Interesting thread about pearls of amber.

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  6. I think we will eventually come to admit that highly conscious and organized long-distance trade has been a constant factor in human life for tens of thousands of years. It has everything to do with human faculties of reasoning and fundamental patterns of human behaviour and little to do with purported “stages” in history or levels of technology. This is the final frontier in overcoming the childish “We’re so cool, our ancestors must have been dumb” fallacy that is the historians’ equivalent of teenagers thinking they invented sex.

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  7. Martin,
    I’d be curious to know about any beads that you have come across in your excavations? I’ve been a collector for many years now…

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  8. Beads are ubiquitous in certain contexts here in Sweden, notably female graves of the 6th through 10th centuries. Most are opaque glass paste. The most common types are monochrome red or orange and shaped like little paunchy barrels.

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  9. Possibly an imitation, though the real cornelian doesn’t show up until the 9th century.

    The paste was imported into Scandyland, and then beads were made at regional trading hubs by itinerant craftsmen. So neither really locally made nor imported.

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