MYITKYINA—Twelve separate zippered pockets are bulging from a satchel buckled to the chest of a young amber dealer as he takes his seat atop a rooftop lounge overlooking downtown Myitkyina.
It’s 9 p.m. in the Northernmost capital of Myanmar, and if the dealer—known as Mr. Win Win—gets his way, he’ll be driving back to his modest home with a wad of money in exchange for the prehistoric organisms he has stuffed inside the pockets of his bag.
Seated alone at the table and waiting, Win Win is expecting to meet a rich Thai business magnate who says he acquired his fortune from the importation of Western BBQ sauces to Bangkok hotels in the 1990s. These days, the Thai claims, he’s since shifted his investments of choice from fine rubies to amber inclusions specifically from northern Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma.
Some of the world’s most amazing natural history discoveries in recent years have been unearthed from amber mines near Myitkyina, in the Hukawng Valley of Kachin State, which is situated at the crossroads between southwest China and northeast India.
These discoveries attract the attention of academics, researchers, historians, and also wealthy collectors wishing to stake their (personal, dollar, God, or scientific)-driven claim in the fossil record.
After 15 minutes with no sign of his buyer, Win Win leans over the balcony. Nearly deserted at this hour, the downtown corridor of the city is mostly silent. A trio of cows are chewing on vegetables and garbage—leftovers from the vacated morning market stalls; and further down the road is a heavily armed truckload of policemen yelling at a group of adolescents for hanging out and partying along the muddy western edges of the Irrawaddy River.
Towering above this average nighttime scene is Cartel Hotel, the tallest building in the whole of Kachin State. Written in both English and Mandarin, the neon sign of this monolithic structure boldly affirms the subversive Chinese economic influence sweeping into the veneer of the northern capital’s most expensive real estate. As new underground Chinese money floods the city with bars, clubs, brothels, casinos, restaurants, newly paved roads and luxury hotels, at least some local activists and observers(1) are concerned with ongoing humanitarian situations unfolding far outside the city.
Win Win is no idealist. He’s atop Cartel Hotel’s swanky rooftop lounge, sipping counterfeit booze with a hoard of amber he intends to sell so he can buy a Yamaha just like his older cousin in Yunnan. With a polite but strained smile he admits that, yes, he has a Chinese name but he changed it many years ago when his family crossed the border and bought(2) their citizenship so they could settle in the country.
Holding a jeweler's loupe, a small-framed Thai approaches. As he takes his seat, a quick nod sets off a flurry of zippered pouches being opened. In a very short period of time, the whole table is covered with dozens of polished yellow amber inclusions inside oily dime bags(3). As the Thai reaches to pick one up, Win Win points. “Skin. And feather. You see?”
The buyer’s left eye scans the piece thoroughly using the magnification of his eyeglass. As he rotates the inclusion, his same hand is shining a powerful beam of light through the amber to mimic the effect of a microscope. He sets two pieces of amber down, frowning and feigning disinterest, a common practice in the trade.
Scientists in both China and America relatively unanimously deduce that amber mined from the nearby Hukawng Valley is believed to be between 99-101 million years old. As paleontologists worldwide continue to make shocking discoveries of amber from this locale, it’s spurned a cottage industry of local fossil hunters who work side-by-side with jewellery makers in Kachin State. Pieces of Hukawng amber acquired from these markets, such as a pterosaur head encased in amber, are now up for auction in England for $US 4.8 million.
With people like Win Win somewhere close to the beginning of the amber trade in Myanmar, the mining of such a substance provides a predictable store of wealth to urban and tribal populations wracked by floods, crippled with poor infrastructure and a wildly fluctuating and inflating Kyat, the country’s national currency.
Tao Rai asks the Thai. Ba Lao Lay. How much? Numbers are exchanged back and forth and a deal is quickly struck between the two. Win Win’s nervous smile is replaced with a genuine grin as he begins counting bricks of Myanmar currency in exchange for two inclusions, each about the size of a golf ball, and a few other inclusions.
Clutching two prized natural specimens of ancient feathers and bone fragments which could potentially rewrite the fossil record if in the hands of the right scientist, the Thai retreats to his penthouse suite.
Beneath the hotel, in one of the city’s only underground parking lots, Win Win fires up his motorbike and makes his way to the ramp. Strapped to his chest is 10 million kyats, or US$6,500, representing between four to six years of an average salary in Myanmar.As he speeds through the deserted streets on his way home, he passes packs of stray dogs, sleepy uniformed security guards, rows of wooden houses, and a newly constructed flamboyant three-storey Chinese karaoke pop brothel painted white.
Half the gas stations in town are little more than coke bottles full of gasoline, and some of them are even staffed by toddlers. But the highway Win Win is on right now is freshly paved with Chinese money, and the tank of his new Yahama he prefers to only fill with premium fuel. After all, all he had to do was sacrifice a few pieces of amber in order to make his fortune in Kachin State.
99 million years ago, and about 100 kilometers away, the Hukawng Valley was teeming with an ecosystem of strange and bizarre creatures. Huge pools of sticky liquid tree resin, which seeped out from the branches and trunks of large prehistoric trees, gathered at the bottom of the forest floor, ensnaring huge amounts of plants and animals which fell into its grasp. As time passed, gasses erupted from the liquid, eventually leaving a solid, polymer-like substance we now call amber.
Amber is often found through many regions of the globe, such as in the Baltic States in Eastern Europe, but Myanmar amber is much older and offers a glimpse into an extremely important stage of evolution for flowering plants, for example, and the insects and vertebrates which fed and lived upon them at that period of history.
Since 2016, hundreds of research papers and discoveries based on Myanmar amber have exploded into news headlines and front pages of magazines around the world. Among the discoveries trumpeted by major international scientific journals is the finding of a feathered Cretaceous dinosaur tail nicknamed “Eva”, the discovery of prehistoric frogs, snakes, snails, lizards, a 2mm-wide preserved enantiornithine foot, and a swath of newly discovered insects. Pterosaurs and other prehistoric tiny winged animals have appeared in high profile auctions and advertised on social media platforms. “Amber is the perfect fossil, because we have things preserved in their natural state..with their soft tissue encased in there,” says Montreal-based paleontologist Hans Larsson. “We can image (amber) down to sub micron images now.”
Unfortunately, such scientific discoveries often operate within a knowledge vacuum, with few researchers or journalists understanding the full scope of geopolitical factors motivating present-day amber mining and fossil hunting in Myanmar.
As an enduring trade-name, “Burmite” was first coined in the 1800s by Europeans to describe amber from Burma, which carried a number of distinct characteristics in comparison to amber from other countries. At that time, the country was ruled by monarchies before three successive Anglo-Burmese wars ended with complete annexation of the nation, with minor autonomy given to various frontier areas such as Kachin State. Using “divide and rule” tactics popular during 19th century imperialist foreign policy, the British were successful in installing colonial rule until the collapse of their empire shortly after the end of WWII. A series of violent revolutions, a failed “Burmese Way to Socialism”, and numerous authoritarian regimes in combination with ongoing ethnic insurgencies have turned back the clock significantly in terms of development since gaining its independence in 1948. From that point onward, the country’s own fragile instability and isolation from much of the world has significantly contributed to the difficulty of Myanmar making itself available to global trade through proper channels.
It wasn’t until the 1990s and early 2000s that a pioneering Canadian gold miner by the name of James Davis made his mark in the field of amber research by being the first westerner in the last few decades to make significant inroads with Burmese and Kachin leaders. After establishing connections with both guerillas and central authorities, Davis procured a shipment of rough amber for scientific purposes for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At the time, humanitarian critics publicly denounced Davis, suggesting the support of such an enterprise was enabling conflict in Northern Myanmar. His response then is the same as it is now: “A country can only change in two ways: revolution, or evolution.” The latter, he says, results in less bloodshed.
To this day, Davis is remembered as a hero-like figure in Myitkyina for putting Myanmar amber in front of the noses of western researchers. “He first brought the dino bird legend to America and Canada when I was young, when he was doing business here in Kachin. I hope to see a statue of him built one day, he deserves it,” says John Zaw Lawt, an amber dealer who owns a shop at Myitkyina’s gem market.
The Burmite Controversy
Throughout 2019, numerous high profile news features have erupted from British and American news agencies, decrying a “Blood Amber” rush which is supposedly fueling warfare and environmental destruction in northern Myanmar to support amber research. Few authors actually visit Myanmar, let alone Kachin State, to see if the narrative is congruent with what is happening on the ground.
Forces aligned both with and against the Myanmar government collect taxes from the trade of amber, much like they do with other commodities. But for the average worker or entrepreneur in Myanmar, of which there are many, few barriers exist to get started making money in the amber trade. To many, it pays better than wading through rice paddies or hunting pigs with machetes to support their families.
In the past six years, Myitkyina’s Gem and Jewellery Trade Centre, which sells both amber and jadeite, has doubled in size and it currently employs approximately between 300-800 sellers on any given day, contributing to a total of at least 10,000 jobs within the city, according to Dan Awng, chief of security for Myitkyina’s Gem and Jewellery Trade Centre. His numbers are based on estimates, factoring in the amount of licensed shops, vehicle traffic, and people involved in procuring, transporting, polishing, brokering and selling amber within the market and surrounding areas. Entrepreneurs have been quick to snap up real estate beside the market to launch hospitality-related businesses such as hotels and restaurants to capture some of the money flooding the marketplace.
Most amber unearthed in Myanmar is polished and destined to be fit for high quality jewellery products or carvings most often sought by nearby Chinese merchants. Local sellers are always looking for ways to appeal their wares to international markets as well, and whenever news headlines about amber reach their smartphones, it sends waves of enthusiasm among all those currently in the trade.
“It’s amazing. I called my brother, he has been in Sagaing farming chickens because he gave up on this business last year. I’m not giving up. I am searching,” says Nay Lin, an amber hunter who has doubled down on his pursuits to polish and discover amber from his home.
Unlike the mining and sale of fossils in Mongolia, the Myanmar government and business community supports and actively encourages its population to make use of amber, as it provides revenue for both the government and the local people who are acquiring it. “This is Myitkyina market, people are welcome to come here to buy and to sell amber. Foreigners are also very welcome to come,” says Dan Awng, speaking to news cameras during the city’s second annual international gemstone and jade exhibition.
Whether it contains prehistoric organisms or not, amber is considered a jewellery product and ornamental stone according to the Myanmar law. “If we have more markets, we can create more jobs and incomes for our people,” says U Ze Lum, chairman of Mytikyina’s Jewellery and Gem Entrepeneur’s Association.
International aid organizations operating in Kachin State, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have also produced a documentary on Kachin amber pointing to the substance for prosperity for impoverished and displaced locals as well.
Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped British or American reporters from quickly drawing a connection between the amber business and ethnic warfare in the region, which is a bit of a joke for those in the know. Shaking his head, a retired former Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) officer chuckles as he reads the hyperbolic headlines written by English speakers who have never visited his country.
“It’s definitely far more complicated than amber. But honestly, no single person really knows all that’s going on here, in our Kachin State. Of course, we all know there are dark things happening here..bad businesses.” What are these bad businesses, exactly? It’s the sale of drugs, guns, uranium and gold. But most Myanmar people aren’t exactly in a position to be asking too many questions, especially in remote border areas. “There is so much money involved, and money attracts politics, too. Amber is bought and sold by people who I am friends with, but also by people with whom I am completely opposed to on a political level, such as the military.”
The former KIO officer alludes to a popular political cartoon circulated throughout Myitkyina. It’s of a pair of dump-trucks: one is leaving the nation towards China, and it is full of gold bars, beautiful trees, tigers, green blocks of jade, and stacks of money; while the other dump truck is entering Myanmar but it’s filled with pills, skulls, and syringes. The cartoon might draw a chuckle here and there from locals, but there’s a sad undertone to it all, mostly because it’s true. Just about every family in Kachin State has a close relative they’ve lost due to addiction.
Amber is far from the only commodity unearthed from the Hukawng Valley. Many other substances are easier to sell because their value is subject to less interpretation. Even expert gemmologists with decades of experience purchasing gems will admit the price of a stone is only what any particular person is willing to pay. “When I was a boy my auntie used to give me pieces of amber when we left her home. We laughed, threw it at the wall while riding our bicycles. And now I see that it is worth this much? My God, amazing,” says Paul Naw San, acting director of the Kachin Amber Research Institute.(KARI)
But in a such a vast underground economy, the cost-per-kilo of heroin, meth, gold and other metals are far more straightforward; thus these products reel in a comparatively large and predictable amount of money for the actors involved.
Chasing the Dragon
Regional statistics suggest the price of raw opium and refined heroin are falling throughout much of Southeast Asia due to shifting market trends, however in Kachin State wholesale prices remain high. “Hukawng opium? It’s the best,” says the retired Kachin, his eyes narrowing as his mouth forms a wide, romantic smile. “Hukawng opium...it looks the best, tastes the best, smells the best.”
Despite recent crackdowns, factories in the jungles of remote parts of Kachin and Shan states are producing more methamphetamine than any other part of the world. According to a July 2019 report issued by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Myanmar authorities seized 870% more methamphetamine than in 2014. Record setting busts might put a dent in the business, but it’s still booming. The total estimated value of the trade of methamphetamine originating from Southeast Asia is between US $30-60 billion, a comparatively close figure to Myanmar’s entire nominal GDP.
Paired with the annual $8.7-10 billion heroin revenues raked in by drug syndicates operating in the region, Northern Myanmar remains a fertile origin point for an extremely influential underground drug economy which certainly dwarfs the trade of sticky tree resin peddled by a few thousand fossil hunters. “There’s always been a large presence of criminal enterprises which is very well documented by many historians,” says Dr. Arne Kislenko, an historian of Southeast Asia at Ryerson University and a former senior officer for Canada's immigration service.
Southern migration of renegade Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists into remote Myanmar during the cold war sparked the creation of an enduring and sophisticated illicit and lucrative economy, which was enabled and actively supported by foreign powers to operate with impunity for decades. According to Kislenko, the KMT haven’t really disappeared, it’s just that they’ve lost their political commitments to a nationalist China and have shifted their focus on enriching themselves in the best businesses in town: drugs, guns, prostitution and gambling.
“The KMT basically became a mafia which welcomed outsiders to some degree. It isn’t exclusively Chinese anymore who are at the root of the drug trade, the trade of weapons, prostitution, and all the other things that go on there,” he says. After decades of co-mingling with ethnic Lahus, Kachins, Shans and other hilltribe groups in the porous and fertile areas of the Golden Triangle, new generations of traders are using the same porous migratory paths to move people and commodities back and forth, a tradition that’s been going on for centuries, far before Westerners got involved with the drawing of borders and the establishment of nation states.
The criminal connection to the gemstone trade
While gems and jewellery are enjoyed by thousands of people, rich and poor, across the world, the biggest barrier to entry to the commercial side of the business is the myriad tricks and scams deliberately placed along the many steps of the supply chain. Every day, buyers are deceived in expensive transactions, often with little recourse. What appears to be a high quality diamond to a layman can easily turn out to be a low quality synthetic worth five dollars. A bright red ruby can be composed mostly of red glass. A mound of low quality powdered amber can be heated and compressed so it simulates valuable jewellery rather than the waste product that it is. Bags of blue sapphires, upon closer inspection, can—to the untrained eye—turn out to be an inferior and comparably worthless other gemstone such as Kyanite. These are only a few of the common pitfalls in the ‘buyer beware’ gem industry.
One particular group that has some level of immunity to the follies associated with gemstones are wealthy individuals who can carry the burden of risk associated with such purchases. As an investment, criminal figures are particularly attracted to the trade of gemstones due to their liquidity and concealable nature. For a drug dealer with literal truckloads of Burmese cash, the prospect of losing money on a venture with gemstones doesn’t sound like such a bad idea if the proceeds of his operation, large or small, can build the foundation of an accountable enterprise not linked with his ill-gotten fortune.
Meanwhile, thousands of legitimate business-people engage in the trade as well. There is a certain allure to the prospect of turning money into hard commodities. As finite supplies are unearthed and dwindle, everyone already invested in the trade stands to benefit if scarcities exist, even if it’s manufactured.
Gems freely move from one hand to the next. It’s a business which cares little about race, religion, or political affiliation. Cash tends to talk the loudest, as stacks of bills are counted and swapped for small stones in markets and hotel lobbies across the planet. It is for these reasons that the free-floating nature of such a trade, masked with its glamour and glitz, attracts more than just wealthy, affluent, upstanding citizens and consumers. Foreign dignitaries, warlords, spies, terrorists and money launderers are all welcome to step out of the shadows and onto the stage, if even for a few short moments to make a trade.
In the case of amber, a whole new class of buyer is attempting to make its presence on the world stage. Flocks of mostly scientists manacled by the restraints of academia are now entering the fold, if they haven’t already—often oblivious to the geopolitical underpinnings from which Cretaceous amber discoveries are originating.
Amber science: a global rush for the golden resin
Across the street from New York City’s Central Park looms the ornate and antiquated American Museum of Natural History. Its giant 20th-century marble columns tower above the trees and taxis of Manhattan, firmly cementing its place as the world’s largest natural history museum. For nearly two decades, the art-deco interiors of this hallowed institution had a near-monopoly on the world’s supply of Cretaceous Burmite amber available for scientific research—but no longer.
Over the course of the last ten years, Myanmar’s slow march towards democracy has led to the liberalization of its industries. More and more amber is making its way into the hands of different institutions. As old monopolies fade, new players are emerging on the stage, clutching bird wings, hatchlings of tetrapods, embryos of animals from a far-flung era.
Prior to this digitally-driven democratization of fossil research, if western scientists wanted to study amber from Myanmar, they really only had two collections to work with: a small cache of amber acquired during British colonial rule in Burma; and the AMNH’s larger trove of burmite, which was secured following Davis’ successful mission to Myitkyina in the late 1990s.
After years of being one of the world’s foremost authorities on naming and describing species of creatures inside Myanmar amber, Dr. David Grimaldi told The Atlantic earlier this year that the ethical burden of buying amber dredged up from the Hukawng Valley is now too great for him to continue to study. “I’m out; no more Burmese amber purchases,” he said—except for the pieces he already has at his disposal at AMNH. “That’s it.”
His comments echo those of Los Angeles-based researchers as well, who have claimed their shock and dismay upon hearing how the trade supposedly funds warfare between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese Tatmadaw, the nation’s central military.
Meanwhile, an enterprising young paleontologist based in Beijing, Lida Xing, has forged an explosive and industrialized assembly-line of discoveries of all types of flora and fauna found inside Kachin State’s prized golden resin. His name is at the top the lists of co-authors who discover jaw-dropping finds such as prehistoric frogs, snakes, hatchlings, feathers, and so on.
Utilizing his access to a gigantic laboratory in Haidian, Beijing, a branch of China’s University of Geosciences, Xing’s teams of researchers are scanning and naming species at an incredible pace. Armed with a smartphone, Xing is using social media applications to get in contact with dealers who are across the country, in Tengchong, Yunnan, in markets where jewellery is usually bought and sold. In this way, Xing has paved a way forward in paleontology by bridging the gap between a booming amber jewellery business, mostly China-based, and the world of science, where he and other collectors rescue three dimensional fossils which otherwise may be overlooked by jewellers who want to spin a profit on pendants and bracelets instead of doing the work necessary to describe the morphology of what’s inside. Ethical quandaries aside, Xing has teamed up with numerous researchers in Canada, America, and the United Kingdom to produce research papers. However, he isn’t the only researcher leading the charge on acquiring specimens of amber from Northern Myanmar.
The final frontier
Over the past year and a half, an assemblage of Myanmar-based researchers have attempted to establish and garner funding in the form of grants to launch their own laboratory and museum in Kachin State. Dubbed the Kachin Amber Research Institute (KARI), the organization has garnered the endorsement of Montreal-based Redpath Musuem, which is now in the possession of numerous specimens donated by KARI for experimental purposes.
(A prehistoric opium poppy flower inside Cretaceous amber / courtesy of KARI)
“We will move these pieces of amber to the world’s brightest and best scientists because Myanmar people of all races and ethnicity deserve recognition for such a global treasure. We don’t have the technology to do it ourselves yet,” says KARI collections manager, Zaw Dan.
Pieces donated have enabled McGill’s Department of Paleontology and Developmental Biology to conduct numerous tests, all of which begin with thorough imaging.
“Amber research in terms of imaging is at it’s infancy, I think. Now we’ve moved into the spectrum where we can really start working with high resolution imagery of things encased in amber,” says Larsson, who also acts as Canada’s research chair of vertebrate paleontology.
Several storeys above the brick streets of McGill University in downtown Montreal, Canada, a piece of amber is being loaded on to the imaging stage of a 3-and-a-half tonne lead-plated nano-CT scanner. Its lab coat-clad operator, Rui Tahara, presses a button to initiate a procedure whereby the microscope, called an Xradia, blasts the specimen thousands of times with precise x-ray beams while the imaging stage incrementally rotates over the course of many hours, sometimes days at a time, to produce thousands of cross-section images.
When viewed with specialized software, data from the machine is capable of revealing 3-dimensional biological features of Cretaceous amber at a sub-micron level—a feat which is impossible with traditional light-based imaging or even lower-powered CT-scanners. Earlier this year, members of Larsson’s team analyzed images produced from a Cretaceous tick inside amber donated by KARI.
While Larsson says a more thorough and detailed scan will be required, a preliminary test scan showed promising results: blood appears to be inside the fossil.
A new facility at McGill is expected to be completed in December, says Larsson, which will enable his team to work in a completely sterile environment. At this stage, researchers plan to bore a hole into the specimen in order to extract the blood found inside the specimen. “I would be really surprised if it had DNA, but for sure we are going to try. The most shocking part about this would be if the DNA even exists. The oldest-known DNA is not even a million years old.”
An officer whistles
Riding his bright yellow Yamaha over a bridge in Kachin State, Win Win cranes his neck to get a look at the checkpoint that he just drove past. He can see a figure in the distance right beside a road barricade, waving at him to stop; so he jams on his brakes.
A rush of anxiety floods through him while he waits by the roadside. It’s been about five days since he landed his amber deal, and he’s already spent about half of the money he made on frivolous dinners, late nights, and of course, his Yamaha motorbike.
A policeman wearing flip flops and an ill-fitting uniform approaches. “It’s time for a routine inspection,” he says. “Why aren’t you wearing a helmet?” His teeth are stained red with betel leaves and areca nuts that he’s been chewing on all day. It isn’t clear where he’s looking due to the heavy tint on his counterfeit Ray Ban sunglasses.
As Win Win steps off to the side of the road, he watches as the seat of his motorbike is lifted up, revealing a few odd pieces of amber and a phone charger, none of it of any particular interest to authorities—save for the small black plastic bag bundled with crisp, clean $100 American notes. “And what about this?”
A brief period of silence passes over the duo. Win Win doesn’t have an answer; only a shrug. With no shop, no permit, and no actual job or receipt, there’s no reason for him to be carrying a bag of money like that. While he might not be a criminal per se, Win Win doesn’t have any way to account for the fortune he’s acquired. Where did it all come from, after all?
He watches as the dollars are placed into the creased pocket of a pair of tan khakis, confiscated. The proceeds of a business conducted in the shadows of a looming Chinese hotel sometimes leave the hands of the seller almost as quickly as it arrives, a common trend among grey market hustlers.
With a wave, Win Win is told to leave the area immediately and to go home to his wife and newborn child. He’s told to smile, to pray, to be happy that he isn’t in handcuffs in a bamboo holding cell if it wasn’t for his brother-in-law, who happens to be a low level courtroom clerk in the same township.
With an empty look on his face, Win Win climbs back on his new Yamaha, which now makes little sense to own. A few hours later, after he’s explained to his wife what happened, a messenger notification will appear on his phone: it’s the BBQ-sauce business magnate again, and this time he wants dinosaurs inside the amber.
Delighted and simultaneously gutted, Win Win drags a sack of recently unearthed rough amber he’d stowed at his bedside. Outside, on a slab of concrete outside his small home, he flicks the switch to a bench grinder he set up many months ago, when he left the rice fields. It’s time to start polishing again.
(1)Observers - Cartel Hotel’s spectacular rooftop lounge is also a popular location for United Nations sponsored events on peacemaking and international aid in the region.
(2)Bought Citizenship - For generations, migrants from neighbouring India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Laos immigrate through local means, which might mean purchasing someone else’s identity in order to settle into the country through semi-legitimate means.
(3)Oily Dime Bags - a common practice among Myanmar dealers is to keep high quality specimens sealed in thick translucent plastic bags with a small amount of baby oil inside them, a trick used to protect the pieces during storage and transportation. For paleontologists and miners alike, baby oil also cuts down on glare, making it easier to optically look through the amber