3,000-Year-Old Fragments of Royal Purple Dyed Textile Found in Israel

While evidence for the important role of purple dyes in the ancient Mediterranean goes back to the early 2nd millennium BCE, finds of dyed textiles are extremely rare, and the 3,000-year-old pieces of purple-dyed wool textile from the Timna Valley in Israel are the oldest currently known in the Southern Levant.

3,000-year-old wool fibers dyed pink-purple hue. Image credit: Dafna Gazit / Israel Antiquities Authority.

Textile dyeing has been practiced since prehistoric times, using dyes that are extracted from both plant and animal sources.

The color of textiles provides a window into various aspects of ancient societies, including the role of textile dyeing and technological achievements, fashion, social stratification, agriculture and trade connections.

True purple — also known as ‘royal purple’ — was considered the most prestigious dye for textiles in many societies.

However, textiles are rare in the archaeological record. Like any perishable organic material, they are usually subject to rapid decomposition and their preservation requires special conditions to prevent destruction by microorganisms.

Such conditions exist in the ancient copper-ore district of the Timna Valley in southern Israel.

Starting in 2013, excavations in several copper production sites in the region by archaeologists from the Central Timna Valley Project uncovered dozens of fragments of dyed textiles.

The collection included three items that were dyed with true purple, which is based on extracts from sea snails.

“This is a very exciting and important discovery,” said Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“This is the first piece of textile ever found from the time of David and Solomon that is dyed with the prestigious purple dye.”

“Our archaeological expedition has been excavating continuously at Timna since 2013,” said Professor Erez Ben-Yosef, a researcher in the Archaeology Department at Tel Aviv University.

“As a result of the region’s extremely dry climate, we are also 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.”

True purple was produced primarily from three species of sea mollusks of the family Muricidae, which were common in the Mediterranean Sea: Hexaplex trunculusBolinus brandaris, and Stramonita haemastoma.

“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,” Dr. Sukenik said.

“Until the current discovery, we had only encountered mollusk-shell waste and potsherds with patches of dye, which provided evidence of the 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.”

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