Setting the Archaeo-Chemical Record Straight Regarding Tyrian Purple Pigments and Dyes

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Prior to the 2014 ASOR Annual Meeting, I never would have thought someone could make snails interesting, but that is exactly what Professor Zvi C. Koren did. His paper, “Setting the Archaeo-Chemical Record Straight Regarding Tyrian Purple Pigments and Dyes,” was engaging, entertaining, informative, and full of snails. Professor Koren presented his paper during the Art Historical Approaches to the Ancient Near East II session at the 2014 ASOR Annual Meeting in San Diego. Afterwards, he volunteered to present his paper again for ASORtv. I had a feeling his paper was going to be interesting when he asked if we could rearrange the furniture in our studio so he could present while standing. Watch it below.

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Abstract from the 2014 Annual Meeting Program book.

Setting the Archaeo-Chemical Record Straight Regarding Tyrian Purple Pigments and Dyes

Archaeological and chemical evidence associated with ancient vats used for textile dyeing with the purple pigment extracted from Muricidae sea snails have provided new perceptions regarding the various stages of this process. These steps were described two millennia ago by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedic treatise, and also in a concise description of the dyeing of the related biblical blue-purple Tekhelet dye noted three centuries later by the Talmud. A critical reanalysis of Pliny’s and the Talmud’s writings, combined with the archaeological record and with modern laboratory experiments on all-natural dyeings that I have performed, have provided new insights into this craft.

My findings show that there have been significant misinterpretations of the biotechnological process associated with the molluskan purple pigment and of its uses in textile dyeing and stone painting. The major conclusions from recent investigations are: (a) a recognition of the exact fermentation method by which purple dyeing was performed; (b) a new understanding of Pliny’s and the Talmud’s purple-dyeing descriptions; (b) chromatic differences among pigments produced from different Muricidae snails and their uses in dyeing; (c) determination of the quantities of snails needed for a typical dye vat; (d) a revolutionary reevaluation of who discovered the purple colorant, the Aegeans or the Phoenicians.

In my talk, I will discuss the results of my analyses on the purple dyes on Roman-period textiles from Masada as well as the residual purple pigments found on potsherds from Phoenician dye vats from Tell Keisan, Tel Kabri, and Tel Dor.

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