Celebrating the visual languages of PEOPLE, COMMUNITY, CULTURE, and ENVIRONMENT through the global practice of resist-dye traditions and innovations
WSN member Sheri McNerthney ‘s love of purple and ancient traditions, led to a journey across the world to Tel Dor in Israel. She wrote to us recently, to share her experiences and discovery.
Purple is my favorite color. I’m a fiber artist with a special interest in natural dyes. I’m also an ancient history buff. All of which led me this past summer to Tel Dor, an archeological dig on the Carmel coast in northern Israel, where I worked as a volunteer for four weeks. In ancient times Dor was a bustling port, with links to trade routes inland and overseas. Among the most precious commodities traded was purple dye made from the shellfish murex trunculus, worth its weight in gold.
At the height of the Roman Empire wearing purple was restricted by law to the imperial court. Eventually murex purple was lost to history, probably due to societal chaos in the wake of the Roman Empire collapse. Some sort of ecological collapse of the murex population may also have been a factor.
Tyre, located about 40 miles to the north, is the most well-known center for purple dye in antiquity. But evidence has been discovered at Tel Dor indicating that the murex dye industry was also part of the economy of Dor. Several years ago a dye installation including two pits, connecting channels, well-preserved remains of purple dye and scores of crushed murex shells was excavated and dated to the Persian era, around 500BCE. A series of basins and channels was uncovered on a peninsula; one theory holds that these were collection pens for live murex.
The dyestuff is concentrated in the hypobranchial gland of the murex. To extract the dyestuff, the shell is pierced and the gland removed. The secretion is yellow upon extraction, but quickly turns purple when exposed to oxygen. Similar to plant indigo, the dyestuff is insoluble in this state. To make a usable dye the material must be reduced to a soluble state. In antiquity this was accomplished in a fermentation vat. Each murex yields only a precious few drops of dyestuff; it takes thousands of murex to dye a pound of wool.
The murex are now rare along the Carmel coast. In Israel murex trunculus is an officially protected species. So much for my fantasies of snorkeling for murex and dyeing a scarf on my downtime from the dig!
But up on the Tel I dug up several ancient murex shells including one whopper from around 750BCE. Close by, several Iron Age pottery sherds were found with purple dye residue clearly visible on the surface. As I held this evidence of an ancient dyer working over 3000 years ago, I felt the goosebumps rise on my skin. Who was this artisan, doing work not unlike my own? What was her life like?
Most likely she was preparing to dye wool. She was an expert craftsperson making a luxury product that was in high demand. She made a good living selling her product to make garments for the wealthy citizens of Dor. She had clients as far away as Jerusalem who paid a premium for her exquisite purple wool. They never balked at her price; it was cheaper than importing from Tyre.
That long-ago dyer may have produced a second product for a select Jerusalem clientele. By tradition ancient even in our artisan’s time, the Israelites wore fringes on the corners of their garments. At least one thread in these ritual fringes was required to be a color called techelet, as written in the ancient Hebrew scriptures.
The knowledge of what exactly techelet was and how to make it was lost to Jewish tradition in late antiquity, just as murex purple was lost to the world at large. But contemporary researchers in Israel have demonstrated that techelet is a blue hue similar to plant indigo, but obtained from the murex trunculus.
How can the same dyestuff from the same shellfish produce both blue and purple? It turns out that murex dye has a molecular structure similar to plant indigo, but with extra bromine. The brominated indigo molecules produce the purple hue. When a reduced murex dye vat is exposed to direct sunlight, the ultraviolet rays break the bromine molecular bond. Pure indigoten remains; wool dyed in the debrominated vat yields blue.
In Israel I visited a foundation called Ptil Techelet (“Thread of Blue”) which is using this research to revive the ancient art of dyeing techelet with murex, producing ritual fringes with the requisite blue thread.
Using materials from Ptil Techelet, I witnessed the magic with my own eyes. I made a murex reduction vat in a small beaker and divided it in half. I put a tuft of wool roving into each micro-vat. I kept one vat in the dark and put the other in direct sun. After twenty minutes I removed the wool and let it oxidize. Very quickly the wool from the shaded vat turned a gorgeous purple. The wool from the sun-exposed vat turned pure sky blue.
Now I look forward to the 10th International Shibori Symposium in Oaxaca, to see how the traditional dyers of Mexico use their local murex species (murex banderis) to make purple, my favorite color, the color of royalty.
Photo : courtesy Sheri McNerthney