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Looking for Amber in the Baltic Sea and That Thing About the Amber Test

by Silke Elzner

In the autumn holidays we took the children to the German Baltic Sea. We knew that this wouldn’t be the most pleasant season to be there, but it wasn’t the worst either. We simply decided to come prepared and so we booked ourselves into a nice and cosy airbnb with a fireplace.

Against the odds, we were treated to some dry but cold and windy days, so that we seized the opportunity to look for amber on the beach. What we didn’t know at that point was that, a) it wasn’t easy at all to find amber just lying around on the beach, and b) that we were risking our lives while doing so (cue dramatic score).

The autumn storms blew tons of froth onto the beach which came down all around us like little snowflakes.

The autumn storms blew tons of froth onto the beach which came down all around us like little snowflakes.

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A Cosy Baltic Sea Trip in Autumn

So we spent a couple of days on the Baltic Sea in a small village called Köhn which is halfway between the cities of Lübeck and Kiel. A charming region with a lot of lakes, big forests and many beaches nearby. Since most days were dry, we embarked on a couple of trips to neighbouring towns and attractions, including a trip to Lübeck, one to the island of Fehmarn, and one to the amazing UNESCO world heritage listed Viking museum of Haitabu near the Danish border.

But on one day we felt like going out to explore nature and see at least one of the many beaches nearby. The easiest way to sell the idea to children was by proposing a quest to find amber on the beach. Who doesn’t want to look for hidden treasure? And so we all got in the car and drove through villages and forests and crisscrossed pastures and fields until we arrived at an abandoned parking lot somewhere near Weissenhäuser Strand.

Once there we realised what a foolish idea this had been. While it had been a little bit windy at our house, we were now facing a proper autumn storm which battered the unprotected coast with all its might. There was nothing we could do if we didn’t want to declare defeat without leaving the car, so we zipped up our jackets, put our beanies on, stuffed our hands into our pockets and faced the storm.

Parked on an abandoned parking lot near the sea somewhere in the middle of nowhere we decided to go ahead and try our luck.

Parked on an abandoned parking lot near the sea somewhere in the middle of nowhere we decided to go ahead and try our luck.

Somewhere near the Baltic Sea, Looking for Amber

The wind gusts were so strong that the little birds in the sky were struggling to move at least an inch forward. They threw their tiny bodies against the forces of nature, trying to at least hold position. In a similar fashion we opened the car doors against the blowing wind and assembled behind the opened boot for last-minute preparations. Once we were as much protected as possible, with not much more than our noses exposed to the wind, we set off down the little sand dune and onto the pebbly beach.

The beach was covered in froth that was flying through the air like snowflakes. Ah ok, I thought, so this was a rabid beach, with foam forming in the corner of its mouth, ready to swallow us alive. There was no romance in the situation, no time to pause and appreciate a hint of saltiness that might have been in the air. I focused as much as possible on the pebbles under my feet and in the exposed dunes trying to find something that I thought might resemble amber. Where was it? And what did it actually look like?

With the wind drowning the words and making my eyes water, the conditions were rather challenging. I decided to simply stuff my pockets with anything that might look like a honey-coloured stone. The kids copied me, half blinded, lacking orientation, and freezing almost to death in the process. We had no idea if what we did was right, but it was fun regardless.

So how do you recognise amber? Due to the harsh conditions we decided to simply collect anything that might look like a golden stone, possibly amber.

So how do you recognise amber? Due to the harsh conditions we decided to simply collect anything that might look like a golden stone, possibly amber.

Amber, or maybe something else?

A couple of minutes later we were all frozen to the core and ready to return to our holiday home with the fireplace. We put all the stones into bags, separated in piles according to ownership, and stored the treasure in the boot. Now that we were back in the warm and cosy car, driving the way back through pastures and fields, forests and villages, we had finally time to talk about our experiences and our finds.

Did we really find kilograms of amber in the Baltic Sea? Was it really that easy? Anyway, how could you actually make sure that it was indeed amber and not just a yellow stone? I checked my phone and used Google to get some answers. Turns out there were a couple of tests you could perform to check for amber. We figured the easiest way, and the one that wouldn’t also destroy the amber, was to drop the stones into a bowl with saltwater at home.

But then I continued my research in the car and I discovered something rather disturbing. What I didn’t realise until then was that many people got hurt when collecting amber because they mistook phosphor for amber which was washed ashore from WWII bombs and ammunition. If you place phosphor in your pocket, and it dries there, it has the amazing capability of spontaneously igniting itself. To make matters worse, burning phosphor is not just poisonous, a phosphor fire apparently is also impossible to extinguish with water. My mind wandered to the piles of “amber” which we had put in the boot.

While finding amber under these conditions had been slightly challenging it was still a wonderful experience which made returning home to a holiday house with a fireplace even sweeter.

While finding amber under these conditions had been slightly challenging it was still a wonderful experience which made returning home to a holiday house with a fireplace even sweeter.

The Amber Test

Luckily for us, our car did not go up in flames and we all returned home safely. Chances were that we did not make the mistake of collecting dangerous phosphor on the beach which was definitely good news. But did we really find amber? There was just one way to find out. We fetched everything we needed for the amber test from the kitchen and started our saltwater experiment.

In the meantime, I also had had the opportunity to look up worldwide market values for true amber. Nobody of us dared say it out loud but deep inside we were almost expecting us to become multi-millionaires thanks to the piles of stones in front of us. Would this first stone really be amber? Carefully we placed it on top of the salty water. If it really was amber it would stay floated on the top. The stone sank, well, like a stone, to the bottom of the bowl. We picked another piece, one that looked very much the way we would expect amber to look like, with little dirt inside, honey-coloured, with a smooth and almost waxy surface. But this one, too, sank to the bottom.

One by one we put the stones in the water. None of them stayed on the surface, they all sank to the bottom, no matter how much salt we added to the mixture. At least it was no phosphor, we told ourselves. But still, my husband insists to this day that at least a couple of the stones must be amber. He is keeping them at home in the living room cupboard, just in case.

After a couple of minutes the children lost all interest in our quest to find amber. I couldn't even blame them, it was so bloody cold.

After a couple of minutes the children lost all interest in our quest to find amber. I couldn’t even blame them, it was so bloody cold.

Amber, Phosphor, and the Undying Belief of Making a Fortune

There were a couple of ways how one could check for amber. The saltwater test was just one way to get an answer. Amber has some specific qualities that are easy to test. For example, you can set it alight and it will give off a pleasant smell. It is also conducting and will charge electrostatically when rubbed against wool. Maybe we will give it another go one day and try one of the other tests, just to make sure.

At least it was no phosphor. At least we had a fun time on the beach and an experience that the kids will not easily forget. At least we now have a good story to share, that of the boot full of phosphor, of autumn storms that would send froth flying over our heads, of deceivingly false amber and a belief that will never die.

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