The Color Purple

Listen to Today's Edition
Voiced by Amazon Polly

Dyes were an important trading commodity in the ancient Mediterranean, especially when that pigment was a peculiar shade of purple called “Tyrian purple.”

During the Roman period, the dye was worth around three times its weight in gold and emperors coveted it so much that they imposed capital punishments on anyone else wearing it.

Recently, an archeological team discovered an ancient workshop that was producing the royal color on the Greek island of Aegina some 3,600 years ago.

Excavations found the remnants of two buildings in the ancient settlement of Kolonna that had collapsed on top of each other. Investigations showed the site was packed with artifacts and objects used for dye making, such as grinding stones and pottery fragments with purple pigments.

Among them were also the remains of crushed shells of marine snails used to produce the luxurious color.

In their study, the team wrote that the ancient workers mainly relied on the banded dye-murex snail species to get their purple shade. The dye was made from the mucous secretions of the snails’ hypobranchial gland, mixed with salt water and left to steep in containers for a few days.

But it was very arduous and resource-heavy: Approximately 12,000 mollusks were required to produce about one gram of Tyrian purple – or less than 0.04 of an ounce.

Co-author Lydia Berger told Popular Science that the dye was used in various applications, including coloring textiles and wall paintings.

Its production costs did give it some additional value, but back in the Bronze Age, it had yet to reach its royal status, she added.

“There is no indication in the Bronze Age that purple was a symbol of power and that purple-colored textiles were only reserved for the elite or leaders, as in Roman or Byzantine times,” said Berger.

The findings provide insights into the culture, trade, and technology of the time. Kolonna was a well-connected settlement in the Aegean trade network, leveraging its location by the sea for transport, trade, and access to raw materials.

As for the Tyrian purple, the dye’s production method was lost after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.

Still, today’s artisans are painstakingly working to revive the royal shade, according to the BBC.

Not already a subscriber?

If you would like to receive DailyChatter directly to your inbox each morning, subscribe below with a free two-week trial.

Subscribe today

Support journalism that’s independent, non-partisan, and fair.

If you are a student or faculty with a valid school email, you can sign up for a FREE student subscription or faculty subscription.

Questions? Write to us at [email protected].

Copy link