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The Color Purple In the Ancient World

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An interesting article about the unusual source (sea snails) for purple dye in the ancient world. (Note that this site of purple production predated the founding of the city of Tyre, for which this dye is named, by around a thousand years.):





A storehouse of ancient treasures, including precious jewels and gold beads, has been uncovered by archaeologists on an island near Crete devoted to making a precious purple dye from sea snails thousands of years ago.

The finds on Chrysi — a now uninhabited island — show the high value placed on the rare purple dye and the flourishing economy of the settlement between 3,800 and 3,500 years ago, during the Protopalatial and Neopalatial periods of the Minoan civilization on Crete.

Archaeologists think the largest building in the settlement was inhabited by a local elite who may have governed the Minoan settlement on the tiny island, south of the east end of Crete, Greece's culture ministry said in a statement.

The team found deep beds of thousands of the shells of spiny sea snails called Murex — which make the vivid purple substance within their bodies — in several small buildings in the settlement but not in the large building.




The purple dye (later known as Tyrian purple) was extracted from sea snails and was both very rare and expensive. It became associated with the wealthy and ruling elites in the ancient world. The dye was colour-fast (non-fading) and possibly became more intense as the purple-dyed clothe was exposed to weather and over time.




Tyrian purple (Ancient Greek: πορφύρα, porphúra; Latin: purpura), also known as Tyrian red, Phoenician purple, royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye, is a reddish-purple natural dye. It is a secretion produced by several species of predatory sea snails in the family Muricidae, rock snails originally known by the name Murex. In ancient times, extracting this dye involved tens of thousands of snails and substantial labor, and as a result, the dye was highly valued.


The imperial toga picta worn by the emperor was dyed a solid purple.





The snail also secretes this substance when it is attacked by predators, or physically antagonized by humans (e.g., poked). Therefore, the dye can be collected either by "milking" the snails, which is more labour-intensive but is a renewable resource, or by collecting and destructively crushing the snails. David Jacoby remarks that "twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to colour only the trim of a single garment."


The foul-smelling and disgusting source of purple:




guy also known as gaius



(I want to thank Lapham's Quarterly for bringing this article to my attention.)

Edited by guy

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Before we get carried away with the colour purple, there was no official ruling that 'Emperors' should have a purple toga, though purple was a privilege of the elite classes - an expensive one mind you. Senators had a broad purple stripe on their toga, and red dye was often used to simulate purple by excessive use.

There was of course no actual job called 'Emperor'. When an individual asserted himself via politics, subterfuge, or simply marched in with an army, he was made the highest in social status - I cannot stress enough how important that was, because the Romans were intensely sensitive to their privileges and status. They would receive magisterial powers, possibly even posts in actuality, and normally recieve a military honour of Imperator, or 'Victorious General'. In fact, they liked the latter title so much they tended to use it to describe the collective authority they wielded, so much so that the word became synonymous with power and from it we derive the word Emperor in modern times - but Emperor and Imperator are actually two different things.

Caligula for instance attended the games on one occaision and in the visitor VIP stand opposite, he saw a foreign king wearing a very impressive purple cloak. Deeply envious and offended, he had the hapless monarch executed for his indiscretion.

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Good article:



As the dye became more widely available, various Roman rulers, starting with Julius Caesar (r. 46–44 B.C.), attempted to maintain its exclusive status by restricting its use to society’s elite. The emperor Nero (r. A.D. 54–68) is known to have fined those who wore certain shades of murex-based purple clothing without permission or who sold it to commoners. In the third century A.D., the Historia Augusta, a collection of emperors’ biographies, records that the industry had become tightly controlled by the government.


In his excavations of the Roman and Byzantine areas of the site, Eisenberg has identified soil from an industrial pool complex dating to the third and fourth centuries A.D. that is stained various shades of red and purple. Recent analysis of pollen samples taken from the plaster coating the pools indicates the presence of flax, which was often dyed with murex. There are also heaps of murex shells and a shallow pool carved from the rocks that features a dam on two sides. “This would have been a perfect place to capture and keep snails,”


Israel Roman Pool

(Courtesy Michael Eisenberg)

A Roman-era pool along the shallow, rocky shore of Tel Shikmona may have been used to trap snails in order to use them as raw materials for dye.


Israel Dyed Wool

(Courtesy Clara Amit, part of the collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

This 2,000-year-old piece of wool dyed with murex-based blue was found in a cave on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It is one of the few surviving ancient textiles colored with the valuable hue.


Summary: Purple dye was an example of ancient "conspicuous consumption." Similar to the modern tech device or luxury car, there are things that fill the human need to flaunt one's economic success or prestige.

Edited by guy

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