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"BA" Guide to Artifacts: Seashells and Ancient Purple Dyeing Author(s): I.

Irving Ziderman Reviewed work(s): Source: The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Jun., 1990), pp. 98-101 Published by: The American Schools of Oriental Research Stable URL: . Accessed: 18/05/2012 03:31
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to A1rtifacts

Seashells and ncient le Dyeing Purp

I. Irving Ziderman
kermes, and blue-purpleused in the mong the most precious construction of the first temple (see treasures of antiquity 2 Chronicles, chapter 2). were the purple textiles The first written records of Phoenithe producedby cians along the Mediterranean purple dyeing, from Nuzi, Mesopobasin. Ranking in value with gold, tamia, are about 3,500 years old, these purple cloths were very impor- followed by texts in Hebrew (the Book of Exodus,3,300 years old), tant in international trade and tribute as well as for the adornment of Ugaritic (3,000 years old), Akkadian and sanctuaries (2,700 years old), Greek, and Latin. sovereigns (Born evidence of purple Franklin Forbes 1984; Archaeological 1964; 1937; to dates seventeenth-centurydyeing Jensen 1963). B.C.E. Crete. Bandeddye-murex It was probablypartially as a result of the quest for new sources of shells found in 1903 in association with pre-Phoenicianartifacts on purple dye that the Phoenicians deLeuke (modern-dayKonfonision),a established and navies their veloped colonies at so many sites aroundthe small island southeast of Crete, constitute the earliest evidence for a Mediterraneanlittoral. Punic, the Latin designation of "purple-colored" purple dyeing works that is more andof the dialect of ancient Carthage, than 3,700 years old. The Phoenicians producedtwo derives from "Phoenician" (compare distinct purple products, a blueNumbers 26:23; see Astour 1965). The Phoenicians called themselves purple, hyacinth, and a red-purple, Tyrianpurple;both are often referred Canaanites, and their territorywas to in the Bible where they are respecpart of Canaan, so there are ample references to them in the Bible. They tively called, in Hebrew,tekelet and These two dyed wools are organizedthemselves into city-states 'arginmuin. mentioned many times in Exodus and are designated in the Bible accordingly as Tyrians,Sidonians, and (chapters25-40), together with another colored wool called tOlacat so on (compareGenesis 10:15-19). Purple dyeing became a majorsource shini in Hebrew;this was made of economic prosperity in these city- with kermes, a red insect that lives on certain species of oak.' The Book states. In fact, it was King Hiram of Exodusprescribes the use of blueof Solomon who King provided Tyre with a craftsmanexpert in red-purple, purple, red-purple,and crimson


wools in the fabrication of priestly vestments and tabernacle awnings; chapter 4 of the Book of Numbers describes their use for covering sacred vessels when being transported from the sanctuary.EveryJewwas requiredto attach blue-purplecords to the tassels on his four-cornered garments (Numbers 15:38).This observance was abandonedin the
seventh century C.E.,when the

purple dyeing industry collapsed during the Arab conquest of the Levantwith the destruction of Tyre in 638 and the Jewish exile from the Golan Heights. Thereafterpurple dyes were producedsporadically in a few Byzantine centers until the fall
of Constantinople in 1453 C.E.,when

the craft ceased to be practiced in the Mediterraneanbasin.

The ManufacturingProcess Ancient purple dyes were made from certain shellfish that were gathered from the shallow seafloor near the Mediterraneancoast. Colorless dye precursorsare present in the hypobranchial gland, which was removed from fresh snails and then used to dye wool by exposure to sunlight and air so as to develop the purple artifact. Small shells were crushed and processed in toto. The importance of sunlight in this process is mentioned by the ancient authors. A major source for details of the ancient dyeing techniques is Pliny's Natural History, in which we read as follows: The vein already mentioned is then extracted and about a sextarius [approximately7 pounds]
of salt added to each hundred pounds of material. It should be soaked for three days, for the fresher the extract, the more powerful the dye, then boiled in a leaden vessel. Next, five hundred pounds of dye-stuff, diluted with an amphora [about 8 gallons] of water, are subject to an even and moderate heat by placing the vessels in a flue communicating with a distant fur-


Biblical Archaeologist, June 1990

nace. Meanwhile the flesh which necessarily adheres to the veins is skimmed off, and a test is made about the tenth day by steeping a well-washed fleece in the liquefied contents of one of the vessels. The liquid is then heated till the colour answers to expectations. A frankly red colour is inferior to one with a tinge of black. The wool drinks in the dye for five hours and, after carding,is dipped again and again until all the colour is absorbed(Book9, paragraphs 133 and 134, as translated by K. C. Bailey, 1929:29; see Baker 1974;for a slightly different translation, see Rackham 1967:

The Shells The primary artifacts that mark purple dyeing locations are the shells left behind by the dyers. An enormous mound of Phoenician banded dyemurex shells was found near Sidon in 1864. This mound of shells, all broken abovethe chromogenic gland, revealedthe species from which bluepurple was manufactured.Nearby, but carefully separatedfrom this mound, was a second pile containing shells of only two other species, spiny dye-murexand the rock shell or oyster drill, Thais haemastoma. Here was a striking indication of a

separatedyeing site whereby the two species in the second mound served for dyeing red-purple. Bandeddye-murex (Phyllonotus (Murex)trunculus) lives in shallow shore waters aroundthe Mediterranean Sea at depths from 1.5 to at least 12 meters (around5 to 39 feet) on rocky bottoms or coarse sand coveredwith pebbles. The shell has blunt spikes arrangedin a spiral band and a broadchanneled beak. It is interesting to note that purple dye can be made in the absence of light from banded dye-murex (fromno other species, however),but the hue obtained may differ from that formed in sunlight. These shells have been caught in modern times, just as they were in antiquity, by lowering mussel-baited wicker baskets into the depths. The second predominant species of purple shell, spiny dye-murex (Bolinus (Murex)brandaris),occupies a sandy, silty, or muddy habitat at considerable depths (10 to 150 meters, around33 to 492 feet) off the Mediterraneancoast. The shells of this species are characterizedby an elongated beak and prickly spikes. The antique deposit at Tyreis exclusively spiny dye-murex;accordingly, the red-purplemanufacturedthere was the extolled Tyrianpurple. The two species just described are among those referredto by Pliny
The shell pictured at left is banded dye-murex (Phyllonotustrunculus), the species used to manufactureblue-purple (hyacinthin English, t'kelet in Hebrew).This shell has blunt spikes arrangedin a spiral band and a broadchanneled beak. Picturedat right is a fragmentof the same species with the spire brokenoff to permit excision of the chromogenicgland.

as types of pelagia (sea purples)or murex. Spiny dye-murex is probably or his "meltingPliny's "mud-purple" the latter designated by him purple," as the best source for dye, whereas banded dye-murexis probablythe that he states is "pebble-purple" remarkablysuitable for dyeing. Dyeings made solely with sea purples are called conchylia by Pliny. Thais haemastoma dwells on rocks in waters less than 150 centimeters (or 5 feet) deep, both in the MediterraneanSea and, more widely, on the Atlantic coasts of Africa; thus, it is particularly accessible, although less abundant than the other species. Its shells are round in shape, and it is recognizable by the striking red coloration within the large shell orifice that has a characteristically serratedouter edge. We identify this rock shell as Pliny's "trumpet-shell" (buccinum) that did not yield a fast dye alone and was therefore used in admixture with murex species (pelagia)for purpurasdyeings. At some locations, a particular species might predominate and thereby determine the type of purple dye made locally, for example, bluepurple at Sidon and Sareptaand redpurple at Tyre.By defining the species of shells found in an excavation, the archaeologist can ascertain whether blue- or red-purplewas made locally. Before a firm conclusion can be

Biblical Archaeologist, June 1990


reached, however,it is necessary to provide supplementary evidence that the shells were in fact used in dyeing rather than for some other purpose, such as lime production as at Berenice. In Adriatic fish markets, purple snails are sold today as a culinary delicacy, so the archaeologist who finds a dye-murexdeposit cannot exclude the possibility that what has been uncovered are merely kitchen middens. Because murex are cooked whole and the snail is removed without breaking the shell in preparationfor human consumption, a deposit of broken or crushed shells indicates a dyeing site. D. S. Reese (1979-1980) has emphasized that analysis of beach- and water-wearallows for a determination of whether the shell was collected alive, necessary for food and purple dyeing, or dead, for ornamentation or possibly secondary use in lime production, pottery temper, or construction fill. Other Artifacts Related to Purple Dyeing In addition to shells there are three other archaeological artifacts connected with purple dyeing: dyeing installations, colored potsherds, and dyed textiles. The assignment of industrial installations to dyeing has been the subject of dispute (see Horn 1968;Pritchard 1978). Purple dyeing techniques were

with red-purpleare from thirteenthSarepta(McGovern century-B.c.E. " and Michel 1984). Since the malacological and chemical natures of blue-purple H H have only recently been elucidated, The chemical formula of purpledyestuffs. investigatorshave hitherto been The molecule depicted is composed of atoms unable to study its possible occurand carbon of (C),hydrogen(H),nitrogen(N), oxygen (0) that are linked by chemical bonds rence in archaeological artifacts. (- and =). Substituting hydrogen for each X Moreover,the meager chemical eviin the above chemical structureyields the dence that was available could not in important dye compound indigotin (found the archaic vegetable dyes woad and indigo). be attributed to the presence of bluewhereas a bromine substitution for X gives We can now ascertain, howthe brominatedindigo- purple. 6.6'-dibromoindigotin, ever, that a woolen specimen from tin that is the principal colorant of 7)rian of the Bible. purple, the red-purple'argaman Palmyra,some 1,700 years old, is The banded dye-murexproduces a mixture of with true blue-purple(Pfister dyed both of these dyestuffs, forming the blue1937: the Bible. 23). Furthermore,a seventhpurple tke-let of century-c.E.woolen weave from cEn probablyclosely guardedsecrets of Boqeq near the Dead Sea is also Phoenician commercial dyers who pigmented with this elusive dye handed them down discreetly to (Sheffer 1987), as are two textile fragtheir successors. The authentic ments from first-century-B.C.E. Enkomi on Cyprus (Daniels 1985) product was so valuable and in such great demand that a plethora of imi- and one from third-century-c.E. tation purples of inferior quality Roman Britain (Walton 1986).Acwere faked by ancient artisans. Becordingly,it is now possible to corcause of this phenomenon, purple roboratethe previous assignment of colored potsherds and textiles must purple wool from the Bar-Kokhba be subjected to chemical analysis These three species of marine shells were before they can be designated as used by the ancient Phoenicians in manugenuine shell-purple?Chemical facturingpurple dyes. They are, left to right, banded dye-murex(Phyllonotustrunculus), analysis has identified true redused for making blue-purple,and spiny purple in many archaeological dyeand the rock dye-murex(Bolinus brandaris) ings and ceramics and in particular shell Thais haemastoma, both used for abundance from fourth-century-c.E. making red-purple.The Thais shell bears tomb textiles at Palmyra(Pfister signs of water wear and the encrustations of other creatures. 1937).The earliest sherds encrusted


BiblicalArchaeologist, June1990

period found in the Judean Cave of Letters, dated 135 c.E., as being an authentic imitation of blue-purple that was intended for use as the colored cord of Jewish ritual corner tassels (Yadin 1963: 182-87). Purple dyeing was a singular feature of ancient and classical culture. It has repeatedly kindled the imaginations of modern scholars in the quest to fathom its origin and techniques. Scientific research into the chemistry of dyeing with murex has helped solve the enigma (Ziderman 1981, 1982, 1986a, 1986b, 1986c, 1987a, 1987b, 1987c, 1988a, 1988b). So much for the Old World. American archaeologists have discovered red-purple at many preColumbian locations. But, then, that's another story.

murex, is a mixture containing two major colorants, brominated indigotin (the colorant of Tyrianpurple)from the female snails together with plain indigotin from the male snails. The latter material is also found in the archaic vegetable dyes, woad and indigo, as well as in the synthetic indigo used for dyeing jeans.

Astour, M. C. 1965 The Origin of the TermsCanaan, Phoenician and Purple.Journalof Near EasternStudies 24: 346-50. Bailey,K. C., editor and translator 1929 The Elder Pliny's Chapteron Chemical Subjects, part 1. London:Edward Arnold & Co. Baker,J.T 1974 TyrianPurple:An Ancient Dye, a Modem Problem.Endeavour 32: 11-17. Born,W. 1937 Purple.Ciba Review 4: 106-29. Daniels, V. 1985 Dye Analysis of Two Fragmentsfrom Enkomi. Pp. 15-18 in Dyes on Historical and Archaeological Textiles: Summary of Talks (FourthMeeting, September).London:The British Museum. Forbes,R. J. 1964 Dyes and Dyeing. Pp. 98-142 in Studies in Ancient Technology, volume 4, second edition. Leiden:

Notes 'In most English bibles based on the King Jamesversion, these three dyes are translated,respectively,"blue," "purple," and "scarlet." shIni, usually T61lacat rendered"scarlet," is translatedby some as "crimson"; both words originally designateda bluish shade of red that we now call crimson. Modem usage of "scarlet" for a red of orange tone originated in the seventeenth century with the introduction of stannous chloride as a new mordant for dyeing wool with American cochineal (Gerber1978: 12, 13, and 27); it is thus a misnomer for biblical red. The translation of tikelet as "blue" is, in my opinion, erroneous;the correct rendering,"violet," appearsin the New EnglishBible (Oxford andCambridge University Presses, 1970),The Jerusalem Bible (Darton,Longmanand TIbdd, London, 1966),and in E. Fox'snew English rendition of the Book of Exodus,Now Schocken, 1986: 140). shellfish purples have 2Fortunately, a unique chemical composition distinguished by the presence of organicbrocolorant called ITrianpurple that, chemically, is a brominatedindigotin in
These Are the Names (New York,


Franklin,D. 1984 Blue-Purple Dye of Antiquity Reborn. Science News 126: 148. Gerber,F.H. 1978 Cochineal and the Insect Dyes. Ormond Beach,FL:E H. Gerber. Hom, P. 1968 Textiles in BiblicalTimes. Ciba Review 2: 1-37. Jensen,J.B. 1963 RoyalPurpleof Tyre.Journalof Near EasternStudies 22: 104-18. McGovem, P. E., and Michel, R. H. 1984 RoyalPurpleand the Pre-Phoenician

Reese, D. S. 1979- IndustrialExploitationof Murex 1980 Shells: Purple-Dyeand Lime Production at Sidi Khrebish,Benghazi (Berenice).Society for LibyanStudies Annual Report 11:79-83. Sheffer,A. 1987 Textiles from cEn Boqeq.Eretz-lIsrael 19: 160-69. Walton,P. 1986 Dye Tests on Textile Samplesfrom Arlington Avenue,Dorchester. Ancient Monuments Laboratory Report4956. London:Historical Buildingsand Monuments Commission for England. Yadin,Y. 1963 The Finds from the Bar-Kokhba Periodin the Cave of Letters.Jerusalem: IsraelExplorationSociety. Ziderman, I. I. 1981 Blue Threadof the Tzitzit: Was the Ancient Dye a PrussianBlue or TyrianPurple?Journalof the Society of Dyers and Colourists 97: 362-64. 1982 Correction.Journalof the Society of Dyers and Colourists 98: 247. 1986a 3600 Yearsof Purple-ShellDyeing: Characterizationof Hyacinthine Purple (Tekhelet).Pp. 167-98 in Historic Textileand PaperMaterials, edited by H. L. Needles and S. H. Zeronian. Series:Advancesin Chemistry Series Number 212. Washington,DC: American Chemical Society. 1986b Purple Dyes Madefrom Shellfish in Antiquity. Review of Progressin Coloration 16:46-52. 1986c Biblical Dyes of Animal Origin. Chemistry in Britain 22(5):419-21, 454, 638. 1987a Letters:Responseto Antique ConJournalof the Society of troversy. Dyers and Colourists 103:404-05.

1987b First Identification of Authentic

Tgkilet. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research265: 25-33.

1987c Halachic of Reviving the Aspects ModemScientific Discoveries. Pp.

207-20 in The RoyalPurpleand the Biblical "Blue,"Argaman and Tekhelet:The Study of Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Herzogon the Dye Industries ofAncient Israel and Recent Scientific Contributions, edited by E. Spanier.Jerusalem: Keter. 1988a Short Notes: Response to Has Ritual Tekheletin the Lightof

of Lebanon. MASCA DyeIndustry

R. Pfister,


tditions d'Art et d'Histoire. Pritchard, J.B.

1937 Nouveaux Textilesde Palmyre.Paris: 1978 RecoveringSarepta,a Phoenician

mine.Red-purple hasa singlemajor

City.Princeton, NJ:Princeton Press. University

Authentic Tikilet BeenIdentified?

whicheachmoleculeof dyecontainstwo
bromine atoms. On the other hand, blue-

Rackham,H., translator 1967 Pliny:Natural History.Series:Loeb

as madefromthe banded purple, dye-

Classical Library. Cambridge, MA, andLondon: Harvard University

Press and Heinemann.

Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 269: 84-87. 1988b A Modem Miracle:Rediscoveryof

"Blue' Israel DyeforTallitTassels.

Yearbook 43: 287-92.

BiblicalArchaeologist, June1990