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Amber glows at the Getty

Head of a Female Divinity or Sphinx, unknown, Etruscan, 550-520 B.C., amber, 3/8 x 15/16 x 5/8 in. (Photo/The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California, Gift of Gordon McLendon, 77.AO.81.4)

Amber has fascinated humankind since the Paleolithic era. Revered in the ancient world for its dynamic usage and intriguing properties, amber, a fossilized tree resin most recognized for its hues of yellow, orange and brown, was used to perfume oils and creams, ground into medicines, burned as incense, and formed into jewelry, amulets and other objects of prestige. Amber was also dedicated to the gods and buried with the wealthy and powerful, especially women and children.

In a showcase of this versatile and decorative substance, The J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ International Museum Institute (IMI) and the Visual Culture in the Ancient World Initiative, invites visitors to “Ornaments and Amulets: Ancient Carved Ambers for Women, by Women?” at The Getty Villa in Malibu on Nov. 28.

The lecture features art historian and amber expert Faya Causey, who will discuss antiquity’s fascination with the precious material and present a group of amber carvings in the collection of the Getty Museum.

Head of the academic programs department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Causey earned her master’s and doctorate in art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she wrote her PhD dissertation on carved amber. She has taught at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and California State University, Long Beach. Causey has authored two recent publications on amber for the Getty, Amber in the Ancient World, and an online scholarly catalogue of the collection, Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Though she began her academic research on amber in 1977, it was a middle school biology course that sparked Causey’s interest in the complex material.

“In my junior high biology course, our wonderful teacher … talked about the mysteries of amber, especially its ability to preserve in a lifelike way the insects or plants that flew into the resin when it was freshly exuded on the tree,” Causey said.  “Something that was 40 million years old, or older, in which a bee might be encased? Wow!”

In addition to exploring the beauty of amber, the event will delve into the material’s relationship to women in ancient times. “Women in art” has been a recurring theme for several USC art programs this semester, according to Selma Holo, director of the IMI and the USC Fisher Museum of Art, the site of A Complex Weave, an exhibition featuring contemporary female artists.

“We spent the semester looking at women in the arts,” Holo said. “A Complex Weave has 16 women from all over the world who are artists examining women’s conditions as they experience it through art. And Faya Causey … is looking at ancient amber, which arguably might have been made by women and certainly worn by women and used for protection in childbearing, good fortune in marriage and things of that nature.”

Causey will also highlight several other masterpieces in the Getty Museum collection.

The event will be held from 7:30 to 10 p.m. on Nov. 28 in the Auditorium of The Getty Villa (17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades 90272). Admission is free but a ticket is required. For a ticket or more information about the event, call (310) 440-7300 or visit

Amber glows at the Getty

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