With the possible exception of Prince, few historical figures have managed to get away with wearing only purple. In Biblical times, the color was reserved for royalty, and researchers in Israel have now uncovered fragments of clothing dyed with an ancient purple pigment, which they believe may have been worn by the likes of King David or King Solomon.
Presenting their discovery in the journal PLOS One, the study authors describe how they came across three samples of purple fabric at an Iron Age copper smelting site, each of which was tinted with a dye made from Mediterranean mollusks. The use of such a pigment is alluded to by several religious texts, yet until now the only direct evidence for its existence had come from stained ceramics and piles of discarded mollusk shells.
“This is the first piece of textile ever found from the time of David and Solomon that is dyed with the prestigious purple dye,” explained study author Dr Naama Sukenik in a statement. Archaeologists uncovered the rare textiles while excavating a site called Slaves’ Hill, which is located in the Timna Valley of southern Israel.
“In antiquity, purple attire was associated with the nobility, with priests, and of course with royalty. 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.”
Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the fragments are approximately 3,000 years old. Consisting of a piece of woven fabric, a tassel, and a clump of wool fibers, the samples match up perfectly with the biblical monarchies of David and Solomon – both of whom appear in the Old Testament decked in purple.
Wool textile fragment decorated by threads dyed with Royal Purple, ~1000 BCE, Timna Valley, Israel. Image: Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Thanks to the texts of Roman author Pliny the Elder, it is known that the prestigious purple dye was produced from pigments found in three different species of sea snail: the Banded Dye-Murex (Hexaplex trunculus), the Spiny Dye-Murex (Bolinus brandaris), and the Red-Mouthed Rock-Shell (Stramonita haemastoma).
Using a technique called high-pressure liquid chromatography, the study authors were able to confirm that the dyed fabrics did indeed contain these mollusk-derived pigments, indicating that the color was genuine ‘royal purple’.
Interestingly, none of the sea snail species from which the dye is made are found in the Red Sea, which borders Israel. Instead, they populate the waters of the Mediterranean, and their presence in the Middle East, therefore, signifies the existence of established trading routes throughout the region.
Because the pigment occurs only in tiny quantities in sea snails, a large catch is required in order to produce a royal purple garment. By expertly combining the three different species and controlling light exposure during the production process, skilled workers were able to tweak the hues in the dye, bringing out red or blue tones.
Summing up the importance of this discovery, Sukenik remarked that “the remnants of the purple-dyed cloth that we found are not only the most ancient in Israel, but in the Southern Levant in general.”