Rare Purple Dye Discovered in Ancient Fabric

Researchers in southern Israel have found the first evidence of royal purple dye, once considered more valuable than gold, in 3,000-year-old cloth fragments.  

Wool fibers dyed with royal purple from around 1,000 BCE found in Timna Valley, Israel. (Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

(CN) — Evidence of fabric dating back to 3,000 years ago that was dyed with a shade of royal purple found in small quantities in the body of mollusks has been discovered in Timna Valley, an ancient copper production district in southern Israel.

The dye is said to have been worth more than gold during the reigns of King David and King Solomon and provides evidence of the purple dye industry during the Iron Age, researchers say.

Direct radiocarbon dating confirms the material goes back to approximately 1,000 BCE, the time of the biblical monarchies in Jerusalem. The Bible’s Song of Songs 3:9-10 details, “King Solomon made for himself the carriage; he made it of wood from Lebanon. Its posts he made of silver, its base of gold. Its seat was upholstered with purple, its interior inlaid with love.”

During a study that has spanned several years, researchers from Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and Bar Ilan University came across the dye in remnants of woven fabric, including a tassel and fibers of wool dyed with royal purple. The research was published Thursday in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE.

The dye was identified by an advanced analytic instrument as having the presence of unique molecules that originated in a certain species of Mediterranean mollusk harvested more than 180 miles from Timna Valley. The hue is frequently referenced in the Bible and in various Jewish and Christian contexts, but this marks the first time researchers have come across it in their fieldwork.

“This is a very exciting and important discovery,” Naama Sukenik, study co-author and curator of organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement. “This is the first piece of textile ever found from the time of David and Solomon that is dyed with the prestigious purple dye. In antiquity, purple attire was associated with nobility, with priests, and of course with royalty.”

She added, “The gorgeous shade of the purple, the fact that it does not fade, and the difficulty in producing the dye, which is found in minute quantities in the body of mollusks, all made it the most highly valued of the dyes, which often cost more than gold.”

Sukenik said before this discovery, researchers had only encountered mollusk shell waste and broke pieces of ceramic with patches of dye that showed there was a purple industry in the Iron Age.

“Now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of the dyed fabrics themselves, preserved for some 3,000 years,” she said.

Co-author Erez Ben-Yosef, professor at from Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology Department, said his team has been excavating continuously in Timna Valley since 2013.

“As a result of the region’s extremely dry climate, we are able to recover organic materials such as textile, cords and leather from the Iron Age, from the time of David and Solomon, providing us with a unique glimpse into life in biblical times,” Ben-Yousef said in a statement.  

Timna Valley was a production center for copper, which was the Iron Age equivalent of oil today, Ben-Yousef explained.

Wool textile fragment decorated by threads dyed with royal purple from around 1,000 BCE found in Timna Valley, Israel. (Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

“Copper smelting required advanced metallurgical understanding that was a guarded secret, and those who held this knowledge were the ‘Hi-Tech’ experts of the time,” he said.

The site where the fabric was discovered, known as Slaves’ Hill, is the largest copper-smelting site in the valley and is filled with heaps of industrial waste, including slag from the smelting furnaces. One such pile contained scraps of colored cloth, Ben-Yousef said.

“The color immediately attracted our attention, but we found it hard to believe that we found true purple from such an ancient period,” Ben-Yousef said.

True purple, known as argaman, came from three species of mollusk in the Mediterranean Sea, the researchers said: the banded dye-murex, the spiny dye-murex and the red-mouthed rock shell.

The dye was produced from a gland located within the body of the mollusk by means of a complex chemical process that took several days.

Today researchers agree that the two most desirable dyes of the period, purple and azure, or tekhelet, were produced from the purple dye mollusk under different conditions of light exposure. Exposure to light results in azure, while a purple hue is the result of no light exposure. The colors are frequently mentioned together in ancient texts. For example, temple priests, Kings David and Solomon and Jesus of Nazareth are all said to have worn purple.

Ben-Yousef said research has identified the copper-production center at Timna Valley as being part of the biblical kingdom of Edom, which bordered the kingdom of Israel to the south.

“The new finds reinforce our assumption that there was an elite at Timna, attesting to a stratified society,” the professor said. “In addition, since the mollusks are indigenous to the Mediterranean, this society obviously maintained trade relations with other peoples who lived on the coastal plain, However, we do not have evidence of any permanent settlements in the Edomite territory.”

He noted the Edomite kingdom was one of nomads in the early Iron Age, but said even nomads can create a complex sociopolitical system that biblical writers saw as a kingdom.

“It is wrong to assume that if no grand buildings and fortresses have been found, then biblical descriptions of the United Monarchy in Jerusalem must be literary fiction. Our new research at Timna has shown us that even without such buildings, there were kings in our region who ruled over complex societies, formed alliances and trade relations, and waged war on each other,” Ben-Yousef said.

He added, “The wealth of a nomadic society was not measured in palaces and monuments made of stone, but in things that were no less valued in the ancient world – such as copper produced at Timna and the purple dye that was traded with its copper smelters.”

In an email Thursday morning, Ben-Yousef said it is “very exciting to look at and study fragments of royal garments [dating] to the time of the Bible.”

He cited a passage from the Bible’s Book of Judges that refers to “ornaments and collars and purple raiment” on kings.

“So that was the color of kings,” he said. “Probably also the one used by Kings David and Solomon.”

Mentioning Timna Valley’s dry climate and the advantages of that for archaeology work, Ben-Yousef said he and his team can always use the help of volunteers there to help uncover a “unique window into the life of people in the Iron Age.”

“We continue our excavations there every year and invite volunteers to join us in unearthing the past,” he said. “We constantly update our Facebook page with new discoveries and information on volunteering.”

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