Israel: fragment of wool dyed in Tyr’s purple discovered

It looks like a damaged mini-ball, but the fragment of wool, just over an inch long, found in the Timna Valley, a former copper production site in the far south of Israel, is a rarest treasure. It is the oldest textile dyed in Tyr’s purple, also known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple”.

Finding textile fibers is always an archaeological event in itself, as they decompose very quickly when exposed to the elements. But this discovery, reported in the scientific journal Plos One at the end of January, is even more exceptional by its color.

Very strong, the purple of Tire had the particularity of not fading, or on the contrary of strengthening over time. And indeed, the wool has kept its splendor even though it has been dated around the Xe century BC by the Israeli researchers who conducted the excavations, the biblical era of King David. Until now, this pigment had been found in pots and instruments necessary for its manufacture but it had never been formally identified on textile remains.

A very difficult dye to obtain

This tincture, which is no longer used today, is taken from a gland of three species of gastropod molluscs, sea snails. In a study published in 2004, an American historian estimated that more than 12,000 molluscs to collect a gram of dye, an amount that is barely enough to dye the edges of a garment.

From the texts of Pliny the Elder, author of an encyclopedia of natural history in Ier century, the process was long and very costly in resources for the time. After being extracted from marine snails, which already required a good knowledge of biology, the glands were left to dry and then to boil with chemical reagents, over several days and under constant surveillance. The final dye, which varied in color from dark blue to violet-purple, was therefore reserved for a noble elite.

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The discovery of such a sample in a region of copper mines dated to the Xe century BC could therefore be surprising. In reality, “It proves the complexity of the society which exploited the copper mines at the beginning of the Mediterranean iron age”, archaeologists say. “This period following the fall of the Egyptian Empire is marked by the emergence of historically significant local political entities such as the ancient kingdoms of Israel, Edom and Moab” they write. Without concluding on the presence of one or the other of the kingdoms in these places and at this time, the authors believe that such rich and rare textiles suggest the existence of a form of local royalty, with a society organized in strata.


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