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Large golden amber aggregate in lignite

Source : Naturkundemuseum Stuttgart

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Amber - Bernstein - Ambre - Ambar

Asia : Malaysia : Sarawak : Large amber masses up to several square meters in lignite seams

Coordinates: 02°42'N , 113°47'E : Merit Pila lignite mine, Belaga, Central Sarawak, Malaysia 

Some minerals do not form crystals and some minerals are organic. Amber is both of that : a fossil resin, which mostly forms rounded masses and aggregates in matrix. This matric may be a bluish clay like in the case of the classic baltic amber and it may be a sand or sandstone. All this deposits are secondary deposits, as the amber orginates from trees, which grew in wooden areas. So the primary deposits of amber should be fossil forests and indeed you can find amber often in lignite seams.

The amber content of lignite seams can be very high. The Bitterfeld lignite deposits in eastern Germany for example contained very high amounts of amber, which where commercially exploited on its own and sold as 'original baltic amber' in socialistic times. In fact the production of 'lignite amber' exceeded the production of true baltic amber by far. However the maximum size of lignite amber is usualy limited and head sized masses are exceptional. But not so in Malaysia.

The Merit Pila lignite field in central Sarawak is the most important coal deposit of Malaysia. The estimated reserves are at 250 millon tonnes, whereas much of this reserve lies close to the surface and can be mined by opencast. The lignite is of miocene age and usually forms only relatively thin seams within sand and gravel sediments.

Frequent 'amber lines' - long and thin seams of yellow golden amber - can be found in the exposed coal seams, which possibly form the original floor of the miocene forests. These mostly thin, but sometimes up to 30 cm wide lines may reach a continuous length of almost 130 m ! (SCHLEE & CHAN 1992) These immense volumes of amber were produced by trees of the genus Dipterocarpacaea, which still grow in this area and still produce copious amounts of resin today.

1991 a german - malaysian expedition set out to salvage the 'largest amber piece in the world' and they succeed to delineate an amber piece of 3,5 m length, 1,5 m width and some decimeter height. This piece was reduced to the size of 2,3 m by 1,3 m for easier transport, but was finally further divided into three specimen for display in the Sarawak Museum in Kuching, the Museum of the Geological Survey of Sarawak and the Stuttgarter Naturkundemuseum in Germany.

Update December 2006 : Some weeks ago I visited the Naturkundemuseum Stuttgart and - though it has an extremely impressive collection of fossils and extinct animals and even a spectacular amber collection - I was not able to find a single trace of the giant Merit Pila amber specimen decribed above. Maybe somewhere in the archives...?

Other notable & famous amber occurences :

Note : Amber and related fossil resins - even in larger massive aggregates - are a widespread minor constituent of lignite deposits and marine sediments. Mineable quantities and qualities are however very rare.

- The most classic - even ancient - amber deposits are those of the Baltic sea, i.e. in Eastern Prussia, which have been mined in large open pits and underground mines since 1890. The most famous amber mines are in Palmnicken, which is now called Jantarnyi. It has to be mentioned however, that a lot of the amber which was carved and handcrafted in Eastern Germany (and sold as "genuine Baltic Sea Amber") originated in fact from the Bitterfeld area, Sachsen - Anhalt, where large accumulations of amber were discovered throughout lignite open cast mining operations.

- Quite spectacular amber with unusual blue colours in mineable quantities was discovered some decades ago in the Dominician Republic.

- Romania host some notable small amber deposits, which yield larger quantities of generally dark coloured amber.



Merit Pila liginite mine : view of the open pit

Several meter long golden amber "line" in dark lignite

The digging team with the world largest amber aggregate in 1991

All photos  : Dr. Dieter Schlee

Merit Pila Amber Essentials :

Mineralogy :

Amber / fossil resin in lignite deposit

Crystal Size :

None, amber is by definition an amorphous fossil resin, however the size of the aggregated may reach several meter in width and length with a maximum thickness of about 30 - 40 cm

Geology & Origin :

In situ formation by resin producing trees in miocene age. All organic substance was subsequently transformed into lignite and amber

Current status :    

Active lignite mining field, the amber is being mined as byproduct

Remarks :

Ressources and relevant weblinks :

A detailed account about the geology of the Merit Pila lignite deposit, its amber content and about the discovery of the 'largest amber specimen in the world' was published in the german mineral magazine LAPIS in 1992 :

SCHLEE, D. & CHAN, P.H. (1992) : Riesenbernsteine in Sarawak, Nord-Borneo
Lapis, Vo. 17, No. 9, pp13 - 22

A large specimen of the Merit Pila amber is on display in the Naturkundemuseum in Stuttgart / Germany, others are stored in the Sarawak Museum and in the Museum of the Geological Survey of Sarawak




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