Amber, widely produced since Carboniferous (more than 300 millions of years ago), seems to be present in all geological periods.
The more ancient amber lacks natural inclusions such as plant materials (leaves, flowers) or animal inclusions (butterflies, ants, spiders and, more rarely, scorpions, frogs or lizards) which later become rather frequent, starting from 140 millions of years ago. Not all vegetal resins have been transformed or are bound to be transformed into amber since only particular environmental conditions facilitate hardening and final transformation of resin into amber.
Rather recent resins not yet transformed into amber are called copals (from the Aztec copalli): much less precious than amber, they are frequently found in Africa and in South America.
The belief in magical and apotropaic powers of amber in pre-Roman Italy (inhabited by Picenians, Daunians, Peuketiantes, Enotrians) is clearly shown in the subjects represented in jewellery. The image of the winged woman (or of the winged warrior, also empowered to put man in contact with the gods) is certainly one of the favourite motifs in the most important amber sculptures of central and northern Basilicata (6th-4th century B.C) of both Greek and Etruscan production. Harpies, Sphinxes, Syrens, Striges (bird-women who, according to Roman lore, abducted young boys and girls) or Lasa (winged nymphs of the Etruscans) are variations on the theme of the winged goddess or of the bird-woman in love with the child divine.
Gold, tin, hard stones, even spices, in ancient times were not as precious to poets and creators of myths as amber. Legends, mysteries and myths do in fact accompany the millenary history of amber, the fossil resin jewels and amulets were made of and believed to cure various illnesses.
Since prehistory amber has attracted man's attention because of its peculiar translucence, the electrostatic energy it liberates when rubbed briskly, its resinous scent when burnt, its lightness and because it is 'warm' to the touch unlike all other mineral gems. Magical, apotropaic and also therapeutic powers have thus been attributed to amber. The word electricity derives from that fossil resin: elektron was in fact the Greek word for amber, while amber derives from the Arabic haur rumi.
Amber was also so appreciated in Basilicata that nowadays it is one of the principal materials used to reconstruct the archaeological history of the region since the 2nd millennium B.C.
The most ancient amber ornaments in Basilicata, dating back to the 2nd millennium B.C, have been found in tombs in the area of Melfi and Matera, while small amber necklaces dating back to the 10th-8th century were present in Enotrian necropolises of southern Basilicata.
Amber was most widely traded between the 7th and the 5th century B.C., when ancient Basilicata and especially were included in a complex system of relationships covering Eastern Mediterranean, Italian shores and central-northern Europe. In this period local women of high rank were buried with sumptuous parures or decorative elements of their clothing in amber as well as in silver, bronze, iron and glass paste. Small sculptures were carved by craftsmen from the Greek cities of the Ionian coast and from the Etruscan towns of Campania (Capua, Pontecagnano) and perhaps also from Canosa, an important centre of coastal Daunia. The Master of the Winged Sphinxes, working between the end of the 6th and the beginning of the 5th century, is thought to be the creator of the amber pendant representing a winged sphinx found in a princely tomb at Braida di Vaglio.