Ancient Pottery Indicates Site Where Phoenicians Prepared Rare Color
Vessels unearthed near Haifa are first evidence of biblical-era production of purple dye
Researchers say they have found the first indisputable evidence of what they believe was a major Phoenician dye producing site off the Carmel coast in Haifa, where the ancient seafaring people made a rare and much sought-after purple dye during the Iron Age.
A major driver for economies of the time, the dye was extracted from small sea snails known as the Murex trunculus. The dye was so rare and difficult to produce that it was reserved only for royalty.
Over time, the technique of creating the special dye was lost.
“When we realized it [was] real purple dye, we suddenly understood the site had such an intense connection with other places…” Haifa University doctoral student Golan Shalvi, who led the excavations under the direction of Prof. Ayelet Gilboa, told The Media Line.
The dye, Shalvi said, “was very expensive. It was a royal dye for royal people.”
Shalvi is certain that during the Iron Age, the site was one of the most important for the purple dye industry in the ancient Levant, which reached down the Mediterranean coast from what is now Syria through modern-day Lebanon and Israel.
Archaeologists from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University carried out the renewed three-year excavations at the Tel Shikmona site between 2010 and 2013, taking up where the late Dr. Yosef Elgavis, who dug there from 1963-1977, left off.
Based on a their discovery of a sizeable number of pottery shards painted with the purple dye, as well as other finds, university archaeologists believe the site was a busy Byzantine city of some 100 dunams (24 acres), with a purple dye factory at the center of its commerce.
They uncovered more than 30 pottery vessels that were chemically tested to prove the authenticity of the dye; dozens of spindle whorls (an ancient weaving tool); and loom weights, which the researchers say proves that textiles and wool were manufactured there.
In addition, many vessels imported from Cyprus were found at the site.
The artifacts are now on permanent display at the National Maritime Museum in Haifa.
Shalvi said that at first, the team questioned the location of the factory. Although it is along a coast, it has no place for anchorage. He believes the Phoenicians were drawn to the area because a coral reef served as a large breeding ground for the Murex snails.
“Any excavation that sheds light on the biblical period is welcome by us. Every time you find anything biblical it’s exciting,” said Dr. Baruch Sterman, co-founder of the Ptil Tekhelet Association, which manufactures the special blue dye used for religious clothing worn within the Jewish community by using what he believes are the same techniques as those used by the Phoenicians at Tel Shikmona.
“All of these processes the ancient dyers would have had to learn led us to believe they were quite brilliant and expert,” Sterman told The Media Line. “We have chemistry today but they had trial and error, and a tremendous amount of patience.”
Under the Roman emperor Justinian, people were barred from wearing the royal blues and purples made from the snails, he added. Jews who wore the dye on their clothes to uphold a religious injunction risked their lives to do so, highlighting the significance of the dye in the ancient world, he said.