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Rare ancient “true purple” fabric discovered from time of King David

purple wool fibers

Dafna Gazit | Israel Antiquities Authority

J-P Mauro - published on 02/02/21

The color, reserved for clergy and nobility, has not diminished in 3,000 years.

Experts have discovered a small cache of fabric dyed in a purple color traditionally reserved for the ancient elite. The remnants, which include woven fabric, a tassel and fibers of wool, were dated to 1000 BC. This timeline places them within the reign of biblical monarchs like King David.

According to Science Focus, the ancient textile was unearthed in the Timna Valley, a district in southern Israel known for copper production. It is the first discovery of purple-dyed fabric from the Iron Age in Israel or the surrounding regions. Science Focus spoke with researcher Dr Naama Sukenik, who noted that purple dye was used by royalty, as well as the nobility and clergy.

“True purple”

In the official report, published in PLOS ONE, Dr. Sukenik added that the intricate process of extracting the purple pigment from mollusks made it one of the most valuable resources of its day. The pigment was extracted from the glands of several species of snails using chemical processes that took days to complete. At the time, the dye was considered a technological feat and commanded a high price.

The Times of Israel reports that the color of the dye is called “true purple,” or “Tyrian purple.” They note that the dye was also used to color the fabric that lined sacred spaces such as ancient tabernacles and temples. Although the dye was highly valued, the snails it was extracted from were considered dirty and not kosher.

The fabric is thought to have survived for so long because it was buried in an arid climate. It is, however, unknown how the elite indicator wound up in Timna Valley, at a spot called Slaves Hill. The snails would have been sourced from the Mediterranean Sea, which is hundreds of kilometers away from the site. This further suggests it was owned by someone who could afford to have such luxurious textiles imported from afar.

Read more at Times of Israel and see the official report here.


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