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Amber Waves of Misidentification

Figure 1: Petrified wood from the Chehalis River, with a bit of opal.

This is the beginning of the most exciting non-adventure related post to date! I am stoked to report my shiny news from the mysterious world of petrified wood! Sometimes, there's amber in it. Catch: Almost never.

I don't mean, "It's uncommon," I mean according to the online resources it's only ever been found half a dozen times worldwide [The Fossil]. I mean, like five cases. Five. Out of millions and tens of millions of gorgeous fossilized tree bits! Unearthed by weathering forces, these ancient forests, a thousand tons of ancient sap and flesh, almost never coincide with their own fossilized resin. Insane. Especially because, however fleetingly, I thought I had one of them [Figure 1]. Recently, I trekked an hour south of my utopic new home, Tacoma, to the gravelly banks of the Chehalis River. I carried back with me a delightful variety of agate chips and a small handful of tasty petrified woods [Figure 2]. One lovely piece of woodiness I bagged (or boxed, as my chosen receptacle has been upgraded from a 5 gal. bucket to a metal tool box) came with the classic chew signs of hungry dinosaur bugs!

Figure 2: Carnelian agate chip, photographed as found, from the Chehalis River in southwestern Washington.

By now, I am sure you all know how exciting this is for me. In Big Sexy Rocks (Part I), I discuss the insect damage afflicted upon sample A2, and my totally appropriate dream of finding a little woody with bug holes of my own. AND NOW SATISFACTION IS MINE! So, as you might expect, I spent the weeks after this expedition sorting and tumbling the agates & obsessing over this bit 'o honey from the banks of the Chehalis. This piece of partially-chewed fossil was already enough to engross my attention, but then an itty bitty speck of transparency on it caught my eye. You can see what I mean in Figure 1.

Now, had I not also seen a fine seam of the same light-passable mineral contiguous with this speck, I may not have erupted into my usual state of euphoric discovery. Alas, I did see this glassy line in the linear grains of my petrified love, and my prefrontal cortex did send me into a researching spiral. "This is amber! It has to be! Look, right there is the vascular tissue where the life-blood of this sacred sentinel of the forest leaked out and then became a separate fossil entity. The glorious, the splendid, her Great and Terrible Eminence, Amber!"

Overwhelming passion for life is a good problem to have.

Except that it wasn't amber. Honestly, thinking this was possible after even ten minutes of mineral descriptions is something of an embarrassment to my years of fervent Google searching- excuse me, I mean "researching."

Two days later, I am left cradling this woody delight in the afternoon sun camped in the Black Kettle, quietly murmuring. The subject of this (possibly) uncomfortable scene was plastered on my laptop screen in half a dozen open internet browsers: "That is not amber. You are a foolish dreamer. Go get me another dirty Chai latte and make it a double, foolish human!" I guess my Dell laptop's anthropomorphism is a cruel-but-fair reflection of my bruised ego. Considering that this machine got me through grad school, my surprise is colored in a vibrant beige. In any case, this amended discovery was devastating. Instead of a blessed addition to my mineralogical love life, the 'amber' was just common opal. Opal, as we know, is a silicate that forms by filling cavities and cracks in its mineral or stone matrix [See earlier post where I already cited this]. When the petrified wood begins to weather, or breaks down as a result of whatever-force-of-nature, it cracks along the naturally straight faults of it's former vascular tissue. This creates parallel spaces where opal can form as a secondary mineral on the petrified wood [The Fossil]. So,I had petrified wood with an opal-filled crease instead of wood with a vein of amber. It wasn't the the Earth-shattering find I soaked in for two days, but it still commands the sex appeal of a Halle Berry/ Cillian Murphy elf-child, and thus deserves a seat at the My Morning Mile table.

Figure 3: Amber jewelry at Jerry's Rock and Gem.

According to The Fossil Forum, The Virtual Petrified Wood Museum, and Dirty Rockhounds*, amber is something found in coal seams and not congruent with my favorite lady, petrified wood. Among the congenial exchanges on these forums was some insight into the Whys and How's of amber:

"Tree resin breaks down when exposed to drying and oxidation within just a few thousand years. It is not surprising then that amber deposits do not represent forest floor environments. Amber deposits usually represent marine environments. Amber deposits form when resins produced in forests are transported by water to oceans or lakes, where they are deposited into the sedimentary layers. Quick transport and deposition protects the resin from weathering. Once deposited, the resin chemically matures into intermediate forms called copals and finally into amber after millions of years. The amberization process is estimated to take between 2 and 10 million years. However, the type of depositional environment may also affect the time needed for amberization. Amber from Borneo is found in sand and clay sediments deposited in a deep ocean 12 million years ago. The material that comes out of the sandstone has matured into amber, while the specimens from the clay are still copal [Ross, 2010, pp 8-9]."

Around here, we all know amber as the cool dinosaur-spawning prop from Jurassic Park. Seriously, if the image of that golden orb atop the rich white guy's cane isn't at the forefront of your mind when we started this discussion, you're either lying, or inhabited a drastically different media-cosm in the 90's than the rest of us. Today, amber is mainly a gem and fossil, used to make shinies and study prehistory [Figure 3]. *Side note- Did you guys see that they discovered dino feathers in a piece of amber recently?! Here, I included the link at the bottom of the article!

To poke around for some amber info, I took a brief jaunt to Jerry's Rock and Gem shop, located in scenic Kent, WA, and took a few window photos of their stock [Figure 4]. Alright, you got me, I was there interviewing the owners for an article I have no immediate intention to write. Also, I learned that there is blue amber, Baltic amber, and boring old ambers named for their era in time. Baltic amber is usually what people think of, and is found along the shores of the Baltic Sea. Similarly, the Vikings were famous for trading in amber, as the oceanic currents along their Scandinavian coasts were a fount of beach combing for gemstones. My Great Courses on Tape collection has a series on the Viking Age and told me so. You've got your Mexican blue amber that everyone and their mom is trying to sell on Facebook. The clear ambers with fancy bumble bees trapped in them on Etsy. The luscious time pieces and pendants being carved and traded for other precious stone items, and of course the ever-stylish globular chunks at your local rock shop [Figure 4]. It's all the good stuff.

Figure 4: Amber samples with intrusions available for purchase at Jerry's Rock and Gem.

Rest easy, my amorous readership, for when I have ventured forth onto the illustrious Tiger Mountain and brought back a holy speck of this stuff, you can be sure that it will wind up here, in blog form. Speaking of which, the rock hounding season will be shortly upon us, and I plan to harass each and every one of you into a day of loving hard labor out on a mountain top. Your welcome, in advance.

In conclusion, if you misidentify your finds, that's fine- you are not alone. I do it all the time & literally dedicate most of my blog to writing about it. If you decide you are the sixth person on earth to discover a scientific rock-related anomaly, good for you*, at least you have the bravado of a New York traffic director. Ask questions, know your knowledge base, and dream big for that partially-chewed chunk of fossilized wood. Even if it is just a seam of common opal and not a vein of precious amber.

With love and nothing else,


*This might be the most upsetting name for an internet discussion board I've ever encountered. This statement is made on the grounds that it's FREAKING PERFECT IN EVERY SYLLABIC WAY and this order of words never occurred to me. I have brought shame upon my house.

*Spread the love, guys:

*I never did find any solid evidence on whether or not amber has ever been found with petrified wood in the United States... but I am attempting to shorten my posts in loving respect of your time. So, let's just reserve this tidbit for a later time (and you're welcome).


Ross, A. (2010). Amber: The Natural Time Capsule. New York: Firefly Books.

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