WASHINGTON — In a Sunday Arts article about amber artifacts at the Smithsonian, the time of the early Baltic amber trade was stated incorrectly. The initial flourishing was around 3100 B.C.
The Sun regrets the error.
WASHINGTON -- There's a very strange creature inside this chunk of amber. The tiny little body is curled a bit like a scorpion's tail. But wait, there's a round head, big eyes -- and a face, for crying out loud.
FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION
It's an itty-bitty space alien.
What's going on?
Francis Hueber, curator of paleobiology for the National Museum of Natural History, has them going there for a minute. Of course, the space alien is a fake. The amber is fake, too, nothing more than molded plastic.
Hueber -- "Old Doctor Sap" to his colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution -- grins impishly. He made the trick amber in his lab to demonstrate the difference between the real stuff and a forgery. No one takes amber more seriously than Hueber, but sometimes a scientist just wants to have fun.
That is one of the many beauties of amber. It fires the imagination. It's fun.
The Smithsonian's newest exhibition, "Amber: Window to the Past," captures that delight, even as it offers a comprehensive and serious collection of artifacts dating back more than 125 million years. There is something here for everyone: sex and violence from the ancient insect world, Nazis, stolen treasure, DNA extraction and Etruscan deities.
The show, which opened Friday and runs through Sept. 1 at the National Museum of Natural History, features 146 fossil specimens in amber -- very real and very rare -- and 94 decorative objects, including a 5,000-year-old necklace and a re-creation of a corner wall from the famed Amber Room of the Ekatarininsky Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Smithsonian is charging $4 for adult admission to defray the $500,000 cost of the exhibit but will offer some free admissions. "This is quite simply a show that, had we not had the ability to charge, we wouldn't have been able to bring it [to the museum]," says Randall Kremer, spokesman for the natural history museum.
The exhibit, first shown last year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, contains some of the rarest fossil specimens ever found. Among them are a tiny tree frog, a pair of mating craneflies caught in the act, a mantis nymph under attack by ants and a gecko lizard so well-preserved that its tiny toe bones can be seen with X-rays.
"Mother Nature has always been the best artist," says paleontologist Michael K. Brett-Surman. "Even if you didn't know anything about science, it's outright beautiful."
The sticky start
Amber begins as sticky, icky prehistoric tree resin. It emerges from the crucible of the earth tens of millions of years later, fossilized by the same forces that can turn organic matter into coal. Neither gem nor mineral, amber is found around the world in colors ranging from milky white to a deep reddish brown. It can be translucent, like the honey-gold Baltic amber, opaque or even a rare fluorescent blue.
To Stone Age artisans, amber was a thing of great beauty to be carved into tools and decoration. To modern scientists, it is a window on the dinosaur age.
"When we work with amber it's like going through the looking glass," says Hueber. "We're looking into another time and land."
The insects, plants and other debris entombed in amber -- known as "inclusions" -- are far more important to scientists than the substance itself. Dating from the Cretaceous Period, some of the oldest fossilized bees, ants and flies quite likely alighted on the backs of dinosaurs.
"For a paleontologist, it's maddening to think that bug saw more in two minutes than I'll see in a lifetime," says paleontologist Brett-Surman.
Dominican amber, though relatively young at 23 to 30 million years old, is the prehistoric equivalent of a citronella candle at the end of a long summer night -- bugs galore. Whereas Baltic amber may have one insect in every 1,000 pieces, Dominican amber contains at least one inclusion for every 100 pieces, making it a paleo treasure trove.
Some of the oldest plant and insect specimens come from New Jersey; among them is a 90-million-year-old mushroom and a 65-million-year-old bee.
Scientists have extracted minute DNA sequences from insects and plants entombed in amber, but they are a long way from the Jurassic Park scenario of Michael Crichton's fiction. Theoretically, dinosaur DNA could be found in the blood of a mosquito trapped in amber, as Crichton posited, but it hasn't happened yet and the odds are against it.
"First, the female mosquito must bite a dinosaur, and then it must instantly be trapped in [resin] before it has a chance to digest the blood and then we have to find it," says Brett-Surman. "Theoretically possible, but highly unlikely."
An invitation to art
While the exhibit is weighted toward the scientific aspects of amber, it also is rich with art and artifacts, some dating back to the Stone Age.