This tiny amber bear was discovered in a peat bog near Slupsk, Poland, and is supposed to have belonged to a bear hunter three millennia ago.
The little amber bear statue was discovered in 1887 and was dated between 1700 and 650 BC by archeologists. Similar amber bears (and other small amber animals like birds and deer) have been unearthed in sites in Jutland, Denmark, dating to the Mesolithic period, leading some scientists to believe it could be even earlier (12,000-3,900 BC). So, while the precise date of origin is unclear, we may fairly estimate it is more than three thousand years old.
The carving on the piece is exquisite. While the legs are merely represented as bulges, the head has clearly modeled ears, a nose with a carved mouth and two nostrils, and two circularly framed eyes. Just before the hind legs begin, there is an aperture at the back of the figure. On the head, there were traces of a dark substance, indicating that the eyes, nose, and mouth were once partially painted.
But how do we know it was used as an amulet in the first place? The bear can’t stand on the protruding legs since there are evidence of erosion on both sides of the perforation, indicating that it was worn on a strap. However, since the sculpture, when worn as a pendant, hangs upside down and displays the observer its back, a solely decorative purpose as a necklace appears implausible. It also only reveals its distinctive profile when viewed at an angle from the front. When it is held in the hand and presented in this manner, for example, this impact is obtained. The significance of both the bear and amber in prehistoric imaginations also suggests a magical function.
The amulet did not stay in Slupsk for long after it was discovered, as special protection was sought for the oldest artifact ever uncovered in Poland’s Pomerania region. The amber bear was placed in the Szczecin museum, which ensured its safety.
With the Germans focusing more valuable artifacts at the end of WWII, the figurine ended up in Germany, where it was housed and shown at the Kulturhistorisches Museum in Stralsund. Wadysaw Filipowiak, the director of the National Museum in Szczecin, began efforts in 1972 to have the entire relocated collection, including the bear, returned to the Szczecin museum. His efforts were rewarded when, in 2009, the artefact was returned to Poland as part of a deal between the Polish and German governments.
When the amber bear was hauled away from Slupsk following its discovery, locals found it difficult to cope with the loss of “the amulet of happiness,” so the city’s amber guild created a replica in 1924, which is now on exhibit to the public. Every year, the amber bear is auctioned off, with the proceeds going to charity, and a new copy is placed in the special display case.