Arch-Tech: Purple Threads from the Days of David and Solomon

Photo: Dafna Gazit, IAA

Because of their nature as organic materials that inevitably decompose, textiles rarely survive in the archaeological record. When circumstances align for their preservation, these fragile artifacts provide a window into the social, economic, and technological spheres of the ancient world.

In January 2021, researchers at the site of Timna, in southern Israel’s arid Negev region, announced a unique discovery. They had recovered wool fabric not only dated all the way back to the tenth century B.C.E.—but also dyed purple! These are the first Iron Age purple textiles from the entire southern Levant.

Led by Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, the Central Timna Valley Project found three purple textile fragments in a heap of industrial waste on “Slaves’ Hill” (a large copper smelting camp) at the site. The fabric has been dated by radiocarbon to the late 11th–early 10th centuries B.C.E. (early Iron Age), which places these fragments in the days of the biblical kings David and Solomon. Some scholars believe that Timna at that time was a copper mine and smelting center for ancient Edom, Israel’s neighbor to the east.a Despite the name of Slaves’ Hill, the workers at this site were not slaves, but highly skilled metalworkers.

The dye on the textile fragments was analyzed at Bar-Ilan University. Through High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), the researchers ascertained that the dyestuff was true purple—dye from murex snails—known throughout history as royal purple. 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 in regard to the wardrobe of the priesthood and royalty and to the decoration of the tabernacle and the Temple.

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Since the art of dyeing with murex shells stopped in antiquity, researchers had to rely on historical texts, such as Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (9.62, 137) from the first century C.E., that describe the process, and on experimental archaeology. Professor Zohar Amar of Bar-Ilan University even traveled to Italy to reconstruct some of the complex multistep dyeing process!

Several varieties of sea mollusks common to the Mediterranean Sea were used for purple and blue 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. haemastomaproduce a pink-purple hue, H. trunculus produces more violet-blue hues.

3 types of Mollusks that produce the purple dye

The three species of mollusks used to produce purple dye in antiquity (from left to right): S. haemastoma, H. trunculus, and B. brandaris. Shachar Cohern, Courtesy of Zohar Amar

Researchers ascertained that dyestuff from either B. brandaris or S. haemastoma was used to color two of the purple textiles from Timna. While it’s impossible to narrow to the specific species, the experiments showed that extracting dyestuff from S. haemastoma is slightly more convenient because the gland is larger and contains more dyestuff.

The third purple fabric seems to have been dyed with a “double dyeing” method that involves dipping the threads in two baths of dye. Pliny the Elder describes this technology and the resulting color as the most prestigious shade of purple. Coloring the thread with dye from either B. brandarisor S. haemastoma and then with dye from H. trunculus would achieve a color similar to the third purple textile from Timna.

The earliest archaeological evidence for true purple dye might date to the 19th century B.C.E. At Minoan sites (on modern Crete), archaeologists found large piles of murex shells, potentially serving as indirect evidence of the dye extraction process. They have also uncovered ceramic basins with dye stains, dated from the 14th to seventh centuries B.C.E., at several sites along the Mediterranean coast of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Textual evidence of purple dye comes from 15th-century Nuzi (Iraq), 14th-century Amarna (Egypt), 13th-century Knossos (Crete), and from later, classical sources.

The Phoenicians, who lived on the Mediterranean coast, became famous as producers and sellers of purple cloth. Not surprisingly, most of the archaeological sites with evidence of the purple dye industry in the southern Levant appear in Phoenicia: Tyre, Shikmona, Tel Kabri, and Tel Keisan. Even the Bible records their mastery: When King Solomon began building the Jerusalem Temple, he asked King Hiram of Tyre to please send him “an artisan skilled to work in gold, silver, bronze, and iron, and in purple, crimson, and blue fabrics, trained also in engraving” (2 Chronicles 2:7).

Purple Wool Fabric from Tina

Wool fabric from 10th century B.C.E. found in Timna. Photo: Dafna Gazit, IAA

The excavators believe that the cloth recovered from Timna was produced in Phoenicia. Its presence in an Edomite copper production facility testifies to the trade networks in place during the early Iron Age and to the elite standing of the workers there. The smelters were some of the most highly skilled people in their society. Excavations at Timna have revealed that these metalworkers even enjoyed luxurious foodb—in addition to wearing purple clothing! Unfortunately, the lower-class miners would not have experienced the same high standard of living.

The authors of the study note an interesting parallel between their discovery and Judges 8:26, which describes the kings of Midian as wearing gold and “purple garments.” Although the kingdom of Midian has not been identified archaeologically, it was likely a neighbor in the desert areas south of Edom. The events described in Judges 8 have traditionally been dated to the early Iron Age, the same period as the purple fabric fragments from Timna. Thus, a biblical text describing roughly the same period associates purple garments with the elite class of a nomadic or semi-nomadic desert kingdom.

There’s no doubt that Timna’s purple textiles provide insight not only into the semi-nomadic kingdom of Edom but also into the greater economy and technological advances of the southern Levant in the early Iron Age.

Members, Read more in the BAS Library:

Archaeological Views: Biblical Archaeology’s Architectural Bias by Erez Ben-Yosef

Condemned to the Mines: Copper production & Christian persecution by By Mohammad Najjar and Thomas E. Levy

Life Was Not So Bad for Smelters
by Hershel Shanks

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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