Stains of purple dye on fragments of pottery, found at Tell Shikmona Golan Shalvi / University of Hai

Mysterious Biblical-era Stronghold Was Actually a Phoenician Snail Dye Factory, Archaeologists Say

Tel Shikmona contains the ruins of a powerful edifice built where one shouldn’t have been, given the absence of harbor or beach – but the snails from which purple dye was made were there in droves



Why would anybody in their right mind build what looks to have been a fort at an inaccessible point on Israel’s coast over 3,000 years ago? There was no harbor, nor were there signs of settlement at Tel Shikmona in biblical times. Yet somebody built a fortified edifice on a rocky promontory right by the Mediterranean, leading archaeologists to scratch their heads for decades.

The clue lay in snails. You can’t say that about many mysteries in life, but the presence of Murex mollusks thronging a reef may explain exactly what has been baffling archaeologists since excavations of Tel Shikmona began in 1963. Shikmona seems, based on all the evidence, to have been the biggest site of purple dye production found anywhere in the ancient world so far, suggest Prof. Ayelet Gilboa and doctoral candidate Golan Shalvi of the University of Haifa.

“Nothing like it has been found anywhere else in the world,” Shalvi tells Haaretz. “There were facilities making purple dye during the biblical era, but very few.” Purple dye was also used a great deal during Roman times, though no actual production facilities have been found.

Not only was the reef rife with the unique snail from which ancients produced purple dye. The archaeologists found an extraordinary amount of pottery vessels stained by the precious purple dye – almost 30 of them, Shalvi says. Major cities of the Temple period might have one or two pottery remnants stained with purple, but nothing like this concentration.

Moreover, says Shalvi, the stains on the clay pots at Shikmona were genuine purple, not some knock-off plant dye as some types would sell back when. This was the real purple dye – which actually spans the spectrum from reddish purple to purple to azure.

Purple dye was extremely difficult to produce and was therefore associated with royalty and vast wealth:

And the weight of the golden ear-rings that he requested was a thousand and seven hundred shekels of gold; beside the crescents, and the pendants, and the purple raiment that was on the kings of Midian...” (Judges 8:26)

Aside from why people in the Iron Age would have built a fortified edifice on the coast where no boat could dock or anchor, another mystery that baffled excavators is that the site was so small: about 5 dunams in area, while biblical towns of the period were typically around 60 to hundreds of dunams, says Shalvi.

Shay Bar / University of Haifa,

The later Byzantine town built by the edifice measured about 100 dunams in area.

The Iron Age settlement dates from roughly the eleventh to the sixth centuries B.C.E., corresponding in biblical terms to the period of the judges: the putative United Monarchy ruled in turn by the kings Saul, David, and Solomon, followed by the separate Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and then the conquests by the Assyrians and later the Babylonians.

The evidence that this had been a factory for purple dye includes dozens of pottery vessels stained with the color, which was produced in a variety of shades.

The researchers’ work is based on excavation begun in 1963 by Dr. Josef Elgavish for the Haifa Museum as well as three excavation seasons by Drs. Shay Bar and Michael Eisenberg, and a previous analysis of the snail dye by Nira Karmon and Prof. Ehud Spanier from the University of Haifa. Samples from dozens of jars were retaken by Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic materials in the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with a team of researchers from Bar-Ilan University – Dr. David Iluz, Dr. Alexander Varvak, and Prof. Zohar Amar.

They proved that the stains on all the items are indeed true purple extracted from Murex snails.

“It is very rare to find shards from this period featuring purple color. Such items have been found in other sites along Israel’s northern coast, such as Dor and Akko, but in small numbers,” the researchers state.

It wasn’t only dye that was being produced at the site. So were dyed fabrics. The archaeologists report finding dozens of spindle whorls and loom weights. But who was doing this dyeing? Here the researchers had another surprise.

If it quacks like Phoenicians

Golan Shalvi / University of Hai

Based on architecture and location, the assumption among archaeologists of yore, Shalvi explains, had been that Tel Shikmona had been Israelite, except when it was part of the United Monarchy. One telltale feature of Israelite controlling interest was a casemate wall – a double wall around a town to protect the homes within. Excavations had also unearthed a “four-room house,” which was also believed to be typical of ancient Israelite culture three thousand years ago.

The rub is that the pottery the archaeologists found was clearly Phoenician. The site also had pottery imported from Cyprus, too – a lot of it. Shikmona has the greatest collection of typically Cypriot black-on-red ware ever found outside the island.

In fact, for all the Israelite assumptions, the casemate wall was not a military secret and the Phoenicians had adopted the architectural technique as well. In fact they even brought it to Europe as they spread along the coasts of Spain and Portugal.

So the latest theory is that Tel Shikmona bears the remains of a vast (relatively speaking) Phoenician fortified factory that made purple dye from the snails thronging the reef. The Phoenicians would have exported their purple dye and dyed wool and textiles far and wide.

It bears adding that we don’t know exactly how the purple dye was produced from said snail. The ancients jealously guarded the secrets of the technique but all we can say is that the snails’ glands were involved, so even producing small amounts required vast numbers of the animal. That is why the dye became associated with royalty or the filthy rich, as nobody else could afford it. Some societies, as the researchers points out, actually forbade the hoi polloi from wearing the color – unless, presumably, their garb was dyed with the fake plant stuff.

Finally, the Phoenicians were known to possess the secret of purple production. “We know that there were production sites in Tyre and Sidon and other sites in Lebanon, and thousands of Murex shells have been found there, but it seems that most of them are from the Classical periods,” the archaeologists state. “There is still no evidence of the production sites themselves and no direct evidence of the dye.” Except at Shikmona, where excavations are being led by Dr. Michael Eisenberg and Dr. Shai Bar of the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology.

It isn’t clear when the purple dye production at Shikmona stopped. The signs grow fewer in the Late Iron Age, Shalvi says. Possibly the conquest of the land by the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, was the death knell for the ancient factory. In any case, settlement at Shikmona developed during the Classical period – from the Persian to the Roman to the Byzantine – but there is no sign that the peoples of these later times recognized the snail, or made anything using it.

Golan Shalvi / University of Hai

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