Ancient Israel’s Tyrian Purple Factory

Ancient Israel’s Tyrian Purple Factory

Ancient Israel’s Tyrian Purple Factory 1600 1050 rhecht

Iron Age site for creating expensive dye discovered near Haifa

The site of Tel Shiqmona, a factory of Tyrian Purple. Courtesy Mayzenb, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tyrian purple, tekhelet, royal purple: All names for an incredibly expensive, ancient dye. While this dye is often associated with the Phoenician city-state of Tyre, located in modern-day southern Lebanon, one of the largest Iron Age II (c. 1000–586 BCE) factories producing the substance may have been controlled not by the Phoenicians but by the Kingdom of Israel. Publishing the results of excavations from Tel Shiqmona in the journal Tel Aviv, archaeologists from the University of Haifa suggest that during the ninth through eighth centuries BCE, the Kingdom of Israel controlled this important commodity.

Controlling Tyrian Purple

Located on a small spur jutting off the coast near Haifa in northern Israel, Tel Shiqmona is one of the largest Iron Age production sites of Tyrian purple ever discovered. Although only about half an acre in size, the site would have been more than large enough to produce the dye which, by the Roman period (c. 37 BCE–324 CE), was worth three times its weight in gold. Indeed, excavations of the site’s Iron Age layers produced copious amounts of pottery and everyday objects, all stained purple from the dye. The dye would have been exported to Cyprus, Lebanon, Judah, and other Levantine kingdoms, even as far south as Timna in the Wadi Arabah. The expensive dye was used by royalty, the wealthy, and even priests in the Jerusalem Temple.

A pottery sherd from Tel Shiqmona with Tyrian purple dye residue. Courtesy Photo Companion to the Bible, 2 Kings.

Although only a small village in the early Iron Age, by the ninth century, Tel Shiqmona was completely remade and fortified with an imposing casemate wall, the same type of fortification that was used throughout the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. However, the question of who controlled the site is not so simple. Tel Shiqmona boasts a remarkably diverse array of material culture, including ceramic assemblages that strongly reflect Phoenician and Israelite cultures. In addition, casemate walls were characteristic of many cities in the southern Levant at the time.

Investigating this situation, the archaeologists note that during much of the period when Tel Shiqmona was producing purple dye, both Tyre and the Northern Kingdom of Israel were growing and expanding. Indeed, Tel Shiqmona is just 35 miles south of Tyre. However, the archaeologists believe that the rulers of Tel Shiqmona were most likely the kings of northern Israel, who appear to have begun their expansion into the coastal plain in the ninth century, during the time of the Omride dynasty. The archaeologists go so far as to suggest it was King Ahab (r. 874–853 BCE) who first annexed the site.

Yet, the Israelites could not manage Tel Shiqmona by themselves, as they lacked experience in producing and exporting the dye. Thus, the team suggests that the Israelites relied on local Phoenicians for the actual production of the colorant, which explains the presence of large amounts of typical Phoenician pottery at the site. Israelite control over Tel Shiqmona could also help explain Israel’s expansion into the Carmel coast, as several other sites, including Tel Dor, appear to have come under Israelite rule a short time later.

Israelite control over the important site seems to have come to an end in a great destruction around 740 BCE, about a decade before the first Assyrian campaign against the Northern Kingdom (c. 732 BCE). If dated correctly, this would mean that it was not the Assyrians who destroyed the site, but perhaps inter-Israelite unrest triggered by the frequent royal upheavals and assassinations (2 Kings 15–17) in the years leading up to the Assyrian conquest.

Harvesting Tyrian Purple

Unlike many other ancient dyes, Tyrian purple is not made from a root or a flower, but rather from the secretion of the murex sea snail. The process of extracting dyestuff from the snail’s hypobranchial gland is laborious, which made it expensive. With each snail containing less than a gram of dyestuff, hundreds of snails were required to dye one textile. Usually, only the elite could afford to purchase purple garments, whereas fabric colored with plant dyes was more affordable. In the Bible, purple garments are mentioned primarily regarding the wardrobe of the priesthood and royalty and the decoration of the Tabernacle and the Temple.

Several varieties of sea mollusks common to the Mediterranean Sea were used for the dye in antiquity: the banded dye-murex (Hexaplex trunculus), spiny dye-murex (Bolinus brandaris), and red-mouthed rock-shell (Stramonita haemastoma). While B. brandaris and S. haemastoma produce a pink-purple hue, H. trunculus produces more violet-blue hues.


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