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Amazing amber a good resin to visit National museum

One of the many exhibits showing the wonders of amber

One of the many exhibits showing the wonders of amber

  • by GEMMA FRASER
 

IT was famously used to help bring dinosaurs back to life in the blockbusting film Jurassic Park. Now the incredible story of amber and its variety of uses spanning millions of years is to be told at the National Museum of Scotland.

Amazing Amber is the UK’s largest exhibition of the fascinating and diverse material and will see more than 320 objects go on display, ranging from a previously unknown species of earwig trapped in the precious substance, to cutlery used by Sir Walter Scott.

The museum, on Chambers Street, is pulling together its own collection of amber items with those from the Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and even Universal Studios to bring this impressive exhibition together.

Amber has been used for the purpose of “curing” blindness, warding off evil spirits and preserving the remains of insects dating back 100 million years to the time of dinosaurs, and the exhibition is designed to explore all of these uses.

Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the release of Jurassic Park, the exhibition will also look at the link between amber – which is fossilised tree resin – and the dinosaur age.

In the plot of the film, dinosaur DNA was taken from a mosquito trapped in amber in order to create living dinosaurs.

But, while the film’s popularity actually led to increased funding for research into DNA extraction from fossilised insects, fans may be disappointed to hear the science behind the script debunked as part of the exhibition.

Dr Andrew Ross, principal curator of palaeobiology at National Museums Scotland and trained palaeontologist, explains: “I used to work at the Natural History Museum and we did get funding [after the film was released] to try to get insect DNA from amber but we weren’t successful.

“We’ve gathered a few bits of merchandise from Jurassic Park and we’ve got video clips from the film and will be explaining why the science behind it wouldn’t have worked.”

What science can do however, says Dr Ross, is provide an insight into the life of the insects which would have been around in the days of the dinosaur, such as a 100-million-year-old biting midge, which has been found in a piece of Burmese amber and forms part of the collection.

While most people are familiar with amber items, such as jewellery and carvings, many may not know that the substance owes its existence to the defence mechanisms of certain kinds of tree.

When the bark is punctured or infected, a sticky resin oozes out to seal the damage and sterilise the area.

Some species of trees produce such large quantities of resin that small creatures, as well as leaves and flowers from the trees themselves, get trapped.

Dubbed a “natural time capsule”, Dr Ross says scientists are able to discover now extinct species of insect through this unique preservation process.

“My specialist research is in insects,” he explains. “There are lots of new species which have not yet been properly researched.

“There is a recently discovered new species of earwig in amber which is coming to the exhibition.

“You need some knowledge of the living species of insect, then you have to look at the one in amber to see if it’s similar to the living one.

“This one is from Mexican amber and has not been found before. Mexican amber isn’t that old – well, it’s 15-20 million years old, but not that old when you compare it to amber that’s 100 million years old.

“We have tried to cover a diverse range of many different things in amber – beetles, wasps, damselfly, cockroaches, earwigs, for example.

“The insects would have lived on the trees that produced the amber and flew too near the sticky resin and became trapped in it.

“That’s why really small insects are the most common.”

Other than preserving insects for tens of millions of years, amber has been used to make ancient and modern jewellery, with pieces such as the West Ness brooch dating back thousands of years.

Amber was highly prized by our ancestors and examples on display within the exhibition originate from more than 15 different countries including Myanmar (Burma), Mexico, the Dominican Republic and the Baltic States.

Other exhibits include the 17th century altarpieces, the world’s largest piece of Burmese amber – weighing in at 15 kilos – and carved Chinese and Mexican amber.

The walking cane made famous by Lord Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park – with its replica mosquito in amber used to extract the dinosaur DNA – has been borrowed from Universal Studios for the exhibition.

Amber-handled cutlery reputedly used by Sir Walter Scott has also been loaned to the exhibition from the private collection at his Abbotsford home.

“The cutlery goes back to the 14th century. It would have been used on special occasions and given as wedding gifts,” says Dr Ross. “Amber is quite soft so not something you could use every day.”

Amazing Amber also features ancient examples of how the substance was used in folklore to ward off evil spirits, cure blindness and purify water.

“A few hundred years ago, there were a lot of superstitions in Scotland,” says Dr Ross. “The MacDonalds of Glencoe in the 17th century believed amber could cure blindness and would lay it over people’s eyes.

“Lammer beads were given to children and unbaptised babies to ward off evil spirits and were also given as gifts to new brides.”

Three quarters of the Amazing Amber exhibition is made up of objects which have never previously been shown and museum experts believe the diverse range will make it of interest to children and adults alike.

“I think it’s going to attract a lot of interest from all sides and we have tried to cover absolutely everything from old archaeological pieces from Scotland to Jurassic Park,” Dr Ross says. “Everyone will find something they’re interested in.”

Amazing Amber starts on May 10 and runs until September 8. For more information, visit www.nms.ac.uk

 

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