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Letter from Israel

The Price of Purple

Archaeologists have found new evidence of a robust dye industry that endured on the Mediterranean coast for millennia

November/December 2020

Israel Tel ShikmonaNot far from the foot of Mount Carmel and the industrial port city of Haifa on Israel’s Mediterranean coast sits a grassy mound dotted with ruins of buildings and walls, the accumulation of more than three millennia of settlement. From the top of the mound, or tel, a view of the sea stretches out. Birds and fishermen perch on the numerous rocks that dot the shallow water, which is navigable only by the smallest of boats. Since the first excavations in the 1960s, archaeologists have found the site, called Tel Shikmona in Hebrew, or Tell es Samak, “Hill of the Fish,” in Arabic, curious. They couldn’t understand why, beginning in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1200 B.C.), through the Iron Age (ca. 1200–550 B.C.), and continuing more than 1,000 years into the Byzantine period, people would settle somewhere with such a rocky, shallow coastline and no harbor, a place where farming and trade would have been difficult. But now, 50 years later, archaeologists examining artifacts from Tel Shikmona stored in a local museum have determined that its residents used the location to their advantage in an entirely different, and very lucrative, way.


Israel Haifa MapAmong the stored artifacts and original handwritten documents from digs at Tel Shikmona in the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists Golan Shalvi and Ayelet Gilboa, both of the University of Haifa, have found dozens of pottery vessels and sherds covered with purple and blue stains, evidence that people were producing a coveted dye using liquid extracted from the glands of murex sea snails at the site. Until now, such evidence from the Bronze and Iron Ages has been limited to scattered pieces of stained pottery and heaps of murex snail shells found at several sites in modern-day Lebanon and Israel.


In the ancient world, textiles colored with this dye were worth their weight in gold and were often listed along with precious metals in trade and tax records. These textiles bestowed prestige, royal status, and even sacredness on those who wore or were buried in them. The dye is referenced in the Hebrew Bible, in which its purple and blue colors are called argaman and tekhelet, respectively, and instructions are given to hang strings dyed in the tekhelet shade from the corners of garments. In the twelfth century B.C., according to contemporaneous administrative documents, the kingdom of Ugarit in northern Syria paid tribute to the occupying Hittites in the form of purple wool. A ninth-century B.C. inscription attributed to the Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III records that he received purple wool as an incentive to form an alliance with the seafaring traders known as the Phoenicians. Purple wool is also listed among the war spoils taken by Tiglath-Pileser, the Neo-Assyrian king who conquered ancient Syria and Palestine in the eighth century B.C. Much later in history, the dye was responsible for the distinctive purple togas worn by high officials of the Roman Empire. “We are talking about one of the most important industries in the Iron Age and across the ancient world,” says Shalvi. “Now we finally know what would bring people to such a place.”