Back in the time of King David you couldn’t wear Prada, but there already was a must-have high fashion item: anybody who was somebody had to wear purple.
Analysis of 3,000-year-old textile fragments unearthed in the copper mines of Timna, deep in Israel’s southern desert, has revealed some to have been stained with a precious dye believed to have decorated the clothes of biblical kings and high priests who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of the wool fabrics, found in 2016, at the site were colored with “royal purple,” a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University, the Israel Antiquities Authority and Bar Ilan University reported Thursday in the journal PLOS ONE.
Purple was extracted from seashells through a complex, costly process. Its use symbolized wealth, as well as religious or political power among many cultures across the Mediterranean, from the ancient Israelites to the Greeks and Romans.
The presence of this elite material at Timna, hundreds of kilometers from the Mediterranean sea shores where it was produced, gives us insight into elite fashion trends back in the biblical period and contributes to our shifting understanding of the ancient Edomites, the people who once controlled these copper mines in the Negev desert, says Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist who led the team. The study also intersects the broader debate on the historicity of the Bible and particularly on the existence of the fabled kingdom of David and Solomon, to whose era the recovered textiles roughly belong, Ben-Yosef says.
Born to the purple and blue
Archaeologists digging at Timna recovered more than 100 wool and linen fabrics preserved for over three millennia by the dry desert climate, and dating back to the 11th-10th centuries B.C.E. They had already noted that the clothes of some of the ancient metal workers were of unexpectedly high quality, tightly woven and also decorated, mainly in blue and red using plant-based dyes.
But now, using high pressure liquid chromatography, the researchers found that three items in the collection contained signature compounds of royal purple. Also known as “true purple” – to distinguish it from cheaper but less durable plant-based imitations – this dye was extracted from murex sea snails, a family of mollusks commonly found in the Mediterranean Sea, explains Dr. Naama Sukenik, an expert on ancient textiles and curator for organic materials with the IAA.
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Only five other textiles decorated with royal purple have been found in Israel so far and they all date to the Roman period, some 1,000 years later than the Timna items, Sukenik notes.
Purple dye is known in the Old Testament as “argaman” and is mentioned 38 times in text, generally in contexts of prestige and wealth. For example, purple-colored fabrics are said to have been used for the veil at the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle (Exodus 26:31) and for several of the garments worn by the High Priest (Exodus 28:5-33). King Solomon’s palanquin was apparently upholstered in purple (Song of Songs 3:10) and the color graced the robes of Midianite kings mentioned in Judges 8:26 (the Midianites were, incidentally, a neighboring people to the Edomites of Timna).
The biblical argaman is often mentioned alongside another symbolically important color, “tekhelet,” a blue dye which was used, among other things, for the fringes on the corners of the tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl (which is why the color graces modern Israel’s flag as well). Like royal purple, in antiquity tekhelet was also made from murex seashells, using a specific species of these mollusks and a longer exposure of the dye to light during the production process, Sukenik explains.
Neither argaman nor tekhelet were invented in these parts, it seems. The Minoans of Crete were probably the first to invent this dyeing method during the Bronze Age. But in the subsequent centuries the murex dye market was largely cornered by the Phoenicians, especially by the city state of Tyre, in today’s Lebanon. This is why royal purple is also known as “Tyrian purple,” and some scholars believe that the term Phoenician derives from the Greek word “phoinix,” which means red-purple.
Phoenician traders exported the dye far and wide, and nowhere was the product more successful than in Rome, where it became a status symbol for the aristocracy, adorning the togas of senators, triumphant generals and emperors. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, who describes the dye’s production process in his Natural History, tells us of the “purpurae insania” – the frenzy for purple – that gripped the empire’s elites.
The symbolic association between this color and power then translated into Christianity, and to this day Catholic bishops and cardinals wear robes sporting various shades of purple and red.
While it’s fairly easy to imagine those dashing and cosmopolitan Romans falling victim to a mega fashion trend from the East, it’s a bit harder to understand how royal purple made its way to a distant mining operation in the desert of the southern Levant back in the 10th century B.C.E.
A kingdom of nomads
However, the discovery makes sense in light of other recent research on the ancient miners of Timna, Sukenik says. The fabric remains were uncovered among the blackened landscape of the so-called “Slaves’ Hill,” a copper smelting area thus labelled because its original discoverers in the 1930s imagined it as a hellish spot where enslaved people were pressed into backbreaking labor.
The discovery of the textiles, and of remains of high quality imported foods, have changed that assumption. Now archaeologists suspect the smelters at Timna were if anything highly prized for their skills. Well-clothed and well-fed, they were probably anything but slaves.
The presence of royal purple garments at Timna means that either the rulers of this society were present at the site or the copper smelters themselves were part of the elite, says Ben-Yosef.
The good food and elegant clothes found at Timna are all signs of cultural sophistication, that add to the massive size and standardization of the mining operation there and at other copper extraction sites, such as Feynan in nearby Jordan. All of this points to the hand of a strong, centralized kingdom, despite the fact that we don’t have major remains of permanent settlements in the Negev from this period, Ben-Yosef says.
One possible explanation is that by the 11th-10th century B.C.E. the Edomites had managed to create a sophisticated political system and a highly stratified society despite continuing their nomadic or semi-nomadic ways, Ben-Yosef suggests.
The idea that scholars too often dismiss the complexities of ancient nomadic societies because they don’t leave behind massive archaeological remains for us to find is a paradigm that Ben-Yosef has been pushing for a while, including in an article he recently published in Haaretz.
“The use of royal purple is more evidence that nomads could create a strong kingdom with an elite and vast trade ties, contrary to the traditional perception of nomadic societies as simple and isolated,” he says. “They would manifest power and wealth not by building walls and palaces but by obtaining exquisite artifacts that were mobile like they were.”
Did the Bible get it right?
While archaeological evidence of a sedentary Edomite polity only dates back to around 8th century B.C.E., Ben-Yosef’s theory, if correct, would jive with the Bible’s assertion (Genesis 36:31) that such a kingdom existed already before the time of King David, that is, in the 11th-10th century B.C.E.
The archaeologist has suggested that this paradigm shift should apply not only to the Edomites but also to the Israelites and the longstanding debate among scholars over the historicity of the great united monarchy of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon. Most experts today argue that there is no archaeological evidence in Jerusalem or its environs pointing to the existence of a great, centralized kingdom as described in the Old Testament. Just as for the Edomites, the architectural hallmarks of political grandeur appear only in the subsequent centuries. So, this line of thought argues, David and Solomon would have been at best small local chieftains who were aggrandized by the Bible, which was put in writing centuries after these legendary rulers lived. However, Ben-Yosef counters, we should at least take into account the possibility that David’s kingdom did exist but was based on a still largely nomadic population, just like Edom apparently was, which would inevitably leave behind little tangible evidence.
At the very least, the newly discovered luxurious textiles at Timna show that the biblical descriptions of royal purple being used by the elites of the Israelites and their neighbors already in the time of King David are not an anachronism inserted by later authors projecting their own traditions back into the past, Ben-Yosef notes.
“This doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is true, but suggests that these stories may have a grain of truth,” he tells Haaretz.
Given Timna’s distance from the Mediterranean, the purple textiles found there are a “remarkable discovery” that indeed shows the economic and political power of the locals, says Dr. Yigal Bloch, a curator at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem and an expert on ancient dyes. The find doesn’t give us direct information on what was going on at the time in Jerusalem, argues Bloch, who did not take part in the study and in 2018 was one of the curators behind the Bible Lands Museum’s “Out of the Blue” exhibition, which focused on the history of tekhelet and argaman.
However, Bloch notes that the Bible does claim that King David defeated the Edomites and conquered their kingdom (2 Samuel 8:13-15). While there is no archaeological proof that this happened, it still stands to reason that there would have been contacts between the two kingdoms, and the presence at Timna of royal purple, which was so prized by the Israelites, may be a result of those relations, he speculates.
“In principle one could argue that it was King David who organized this whole trade,” Bloch tells Haaretz. “Of course, we can never know for sure, but it’s a possibility.”