Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient trees. The color can range from pale yellow to deep orange or even red and brown. Amber can be translucent or clouded by air bubbles and can also trap and preserve other ancient materials such as insects or leaves. While small amounts of amber can be found in many places, the southern shores of the Baltic Sea have remained the major source for amber since the 12th century. An Eocene conifer forest created what is still the largest known deposit of amber near the former Prussian city of Königsberg, which is now Kaliningrad, an enclave of Russia surrounded by Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. This deposit is now mined using modern techniques, but for many centuries amber was mostly collected as it washed up on the shores of the sea.
Historically, the collecting, trading, and working of amber was controlled by the rulers of the various Baltic States such as Ducal and Royal Prussia, Poland, and Lithuania that had access to the sea shores where amber was found. Permission to work with the valuable material was granted to various guilds and craftsmen by these rulers. Amber was carved, turned on lathes, cut into thin inlays, polished to a shine and crafted into a wide variety of decorative items and jewelry, from boxes and chalices to cabochons and strands of beads. The amber excavated at Jamestown would likely have been personal possessions of wealthy colonists, rather than items intended for trade.
There are 15 amber beads in the Jamestown collection, as well as two tubular fragments with carved facets and dimples that might once have been part of a knife handle. Most of the beads are shaped into circular disks, three are oval, and some are too fragmentary to see the original shape. All of the beads are around 10 mm in size. Eleven of these amber beads were excavated from undisturbed contexts: four from features securely dated between 1608 and 1610, four from other features with a TPQ of 1610 or earlier, and three from mid or late 17th century features. The other amber beads and both handle fragments were found in plowzone and in soil layers disrupted by the construction of the confederate earthworks.