Biblical era purple dye industry discovered in Haifa

Researchers believe the dye came from sea snails

July 1, 2019 16:02
2 minute read.
Biblical era purple dye industry discovered in Haifa

Biblical era purple dye industry discovered in Haifa. (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)


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Archeological findings have uncovered the first ever biblical era purple dye workshop at the Tel Shikmona archeological site. The site, which is south of Haifa, dates back to the Iron Age (11th to sixth century BCE), and was first excavated in the 1960s at the behest of the Haifa Museum. The findings, however, had been kept in storehouses for various reasons. Now, almost 50 years later, Prof. Ayelet Gilboa and PhD candidate Golan Shavi of the University of Haifa have been able to begin studying the findings, and made a shocking discovery.

Tel Shikmona, despite being well documented throughout history, often confused scholars as to why it was established. The shore was too rocky to serve as a harbor, and the land around it was not especially suitable for agriculture. The most notable clues up until this point were the abundance of Phoenician pottery, and large amounts of purple coloring preserved in ceramic vats.

Now, however, an analysis of the findings confirmed that the dye came from sea snails.

Findings of purple coloring from this period are exceptionally rare, the researchers stated, and were only found in small amounts in other places. Not only did Tel Shikmona contain an unprecedentedly large amount – indicating production of the dye – but it also contained looms and spindles – indicating manufacturing of textiles as well.

Purple dye, made from the Murex snails, were the most expensive in the ancient world. Wearing purple was a sign of incredibly high status due to the difficulty in manufacturing it. In fact, the exact process of making purple coloring is still not understood by modern scholars.

This sheds light on the mystery of Tel Shikmona. It wasn't a trading settlement, but a purple dye manufacturing center.

“To date, no center for the production of purple has been found in Iron Age Phoenicia,” the researchers were quoted by the Jewish Press as saying. “We know that there were production sites in Tyre and Sidon and other sites in Lebanon, and thousands of Murex shells have been found there, but… there is still no evidence of the production sites themselves and no direct evidence of the dye."

This is somewhat related to another conclusion Gilboa and Shavi made based on the findings. Tel Shikmona has traditionally been considered part of the Kingdom of Israel, as most of the Carmel was, until the Assyrian conquest. However, it now seems more fitting to consider it part of the Phoenician world, as they were the ones that held the closely guarded secret of purple dye. 

The researchers also believe this dye was used for Tekhelet which was used in the clothing of the High Priest, the tapestries in the Tabernacle, and the tassels.

If these assumptions are correct, then Tel Shikmona just became one of the most unique and important historical sites in the region.

Some of the findings from the site are on display at Haifa's National Maritime Museum.

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