Some fashion choices can be uninspired, but the great have a potential to echo through the ages. Archeologists working in Israel’s Timna Valley have uncovered an ancient example of the latter — scraps of purple cloth from biblical times.
Being rich and powerful isn’t as fun if you don’t flaunt it to everyone. Judging by the fancy hats and other items that ancient nobles and royalty wore, our ancestors likely agreed. Still, while the modern world gave us brave new ways to show off our status, our forefathers had to resort to simpler means, such as wearing clothes dyed with expensive pigments.
Excavation works at an Iron-Age copper production site in the Timna Valley yielded a scrap of such refined clothing. The patch of ancient woolen fabric still bears tassels and fibers dyed with purple, a ‘royal’ color at the time due to its price. Purple dye is often mentioned in the Bible, the team notes, and analysis of the cloth revealed it hails from approximately 3000 years ago, around the time of kings David and Solomon, two important kings in Jewish and Christian history.
This is the first time we’ve found remnants of purple cloth from this time, the team adds.
This shirt? King material.
“This is a very exciting and important discovery,” explains Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority. “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, [made it] often cost more than gold.”
Finding the material here of all places is a two-fold surprise: first, this was an industrial area. The Timna Valley site is still littered with slag produced by bellowing furnaces in which copper was smelted. It’s not exactly a place for fine clothes, even if you own some. Furthermore, the closest source for the dye (made in minute quantities from individual mollusks) is the Mediterranean sea which is over 300 km away.
Still — important people need to get around, and they have the money to afford luxurious, far-away dyes. What’s more exciting about the discovery is that it represents the first actual piece of dyed purple cloth we’ve found from the Iron age in the whole Southern Levant.
“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,” adds Dr. Naama Sukenik. “Now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of the dyed fabrics themselves, preserved for some 3000 years.”
Excavations at the Timna site have been ongoing for a few years now. The very dry climate of the area means organic material such as textiles could remain well preserved even after thousands of years, giving us a unique opportunity to peer into the lives of our ancestors. This is why the team is confident that the discovery of this strip of cloth was only possible here. Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef from Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology Department, the paper’s corresponding author, explains that “the state of preservation at Timna is exceptional and it is paralleled only by that at much later sites”.
“In recent years, we have been excavating a new site inside Timna known as Slaves’ Hill. The name may be misleading since far from being slaves, the laborers were highly skilled metalworkers. Timna was a production center for copper, the Iron Age equivalent of modern-day oil. 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 adds.
“Slaves’ Hill is the largest copper-smelting site in the valley and it is filled with piles of industrial waste such as slag from the smelting furnaces. One of these heaps yielded three scraps of colored cloth. The color immediately attracted our attention, but we found it hard to believe that we had found true purple from such an ancient period.”
The Banded Dye-Murex and Spiny Dye-Murex (Bolinus brandaris) are two species of mollusks endemic to the Mediterranean. They’re also the source of ancient purple dye. Pigments were produced starting from a gland within their bodies which was then processed in a complex series of chemical steps that could take several days to produce dye. If the materials were left exposed to light, an azure color (‘tekhelet’) would be produced; if not, purple (‘argaman’) was the end result.
Both colors, the authors note, are mentioned in ancient sources and often mentioned together. They often held religious or symbolic value (such as showcasing wealth and power). In the Bible, the Temple priests, kings David and Solomon, and Jesus of Nazareth are described as having worn clothing colored with purple.
The presence of the dye in the cloth was established using a high-performance liquid chromatography device, which found unique molecules known only in certain species of mollusks. In archaeology in general, explains lead author Dr. Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority, cloth is typically dyed with plant-based pigments, as these were much cheaper, simpler to produce, and readily available while animal-based pigments were more “prestigious”.
As part of the research, the team also recreated the dye using mollusks from Italy (where they are enjoyed as food). Although it took ‘thousands of mollusks’, they managed to successfully recreate the color — having the ancient equivalent to check against helped a lot. Among some of the findings is a ‘double-dyeing’ method “in which two species of mollusk were used in a sophisticated way, to enrich the dye,” says Dr. Sukenik.
“The practical work took us back thousands of years,” adds co-author Prof. Zohar Amar, “and it has allowed us to better understand obscure historical sources associated with the precious colors of azure and purple.”
During its day, Timna was part of the Kingdom of Edom, which bordered the Kingdom of Israel to the south.
The paper “Early evidence of royal purple dyed textile from Timna Valley (Israel)” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.
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