Three fragments of cloth dyed with purple, the most precious dye of the ancient world, have been discovered in the Timna Valley near Eilat.1 The textiles have been dated to 1000BC, the period of David and Solomon. Also known as “true” or “Tyrian purple”,2 the vibrant purple colour of the pieces of fabric is produced by dye glands gathered from a tiny mollusc, the murex shellfish, found on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.3

Organic materials are rarely found in regular excavations, but the arid desert of the Timna Valley has preserved items such as textiles, ropes and leather: materials that usually decay over time. Roman era textile and leather items have also been discovered in the Judean caves and at Masada, where similar dry conditions exist.

Researchers were aware of a true purple textile dye industry. Vast deposits of murex shells have been discovered near Sidon and Tyre, and at Phoenician colonies across the Mediterranean. But until these discoveries there had not been examples of ancient-dyed textiles. These textile discoveries are the earliest evidence of the use of this precious dye in the south of Israel in ancient times. Previous examples of cloth with purple dye came from the Roman era, 1000 years later.

These tiny, vibrantly coloured textile pieces also shed new light on the nature of the early kingdom of Edom conquered by King David about 3000 years ago (2 Sam 8:14). The excavations are also providing indications of relatively luxurious conditions in Edom, suggesting that the early Edomite kingdom was more than a tribal camp—confirming the record of the Bible.

Bar Ilan University laboratory examined the textile pieces and confirmed that molecules 6-monobromoindigotin and 6,6-dibromoindigotin, which are unique to the murex sea snails that produce the true purple dye, were discovered on the cloth scraps after High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) analyses. This process is used to identify organic dyestuff. It is a complex task requiring very intensive work due to the low concentration of the molecules in the fibres “and the limited amount of material available for destructive analysis.”4

While purple was resistant to fading, it was costly to manufacture, which meant that only royalty and the wealthy could afford clothing dyed using Tyrian purple. The Hebrew word for purple, argaman, occurs 38 times in the Old Testament, chiefly in Exodus of the materials for the Tabernacle (e.g. Exod 25:4). Purple was used in Solomon’s Temple (2 Chron 2:7) and in making high quality clothing (Prov 31:22). It was worn by kings (Jud 8:26) and adorned idols, as it was regarded as the dress of the gods (Jer 10:9). Tyre exported purple throughout the ancient world (Ezek 27:7,16) and was expert in the process of extracting the dye from the sea-shells. Tyrian purple was therefore the finest available, although there were cheaper, inferior products on the market.5

In the New Testament, the drunken harlot representing the apostasy is “arrayed in purple” (Rev 17:4; 18:16). Listed amongst her varied merchandise is purple (Rev 18:12), the symbol of luxury and wealth (Luke 16:19).

When the Apostle Paul visited Philippi on his second journey, Lydia of Thyatira was converted to the truth (Acts 16:14). Lydia was a successful businesswoman who traded in purple and possibly other dyes from Thyatira, such as madder root, a plant found in that region.6 Inscriptions from the Roman period discovered in Philippi mention “purple dyers” who marketed their products and services in the city.7

Before his crucifixion, the Lord Jesus Christ was humiliated by the soldiers who clothed him as a king in purple and gave him a crown of thorns (Mark 15:17,20; John 19:2,5). But for the joy that was set before him, he endured the shame and now sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven (Heb 12:2), soon to return to take the kingdom and reign over the house of Jacob forever (Luke 1:33).

References:

1 Amanda Borschel-Dan, “Ancient cloth with Bible’s purple dye found in Israel, dated to King David’s era”, The Times of Israel, 28 January 2021, online at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/ancient-cloths-with-royal-purple-dye-found-in-israel-dated-to-king-davids-time/

2 Mark Cartwright, “Tyrian Purple” in, Ancient History Encyclopedia, published on 21 July 2016, online at: https://www.ancient.eu/Tyrian_Purple/

3 Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., Chicago: Moody Press, 1960, p. 904.

4 Naama Sukenik, David Iluz, Zohar Amar, Alexander Varvak, Orit Shamir, Erez Ben-Yosef, “Early evidence of royal purple dyed textile from Timna Valley (Israel)” in, PLoS ONE 16(1), 28 January, 2021: e0245897. Online at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0245897

5 Mark Cartwright, “Tyrian Purple”

6 David Graves, “What is the Madder with Lydia’s Purple? A Reexamination of the Purpurarii in Thyatira and Philippi”, Near East Archaeological Society Bulletin, 62 (2017) p. 3-29. Online at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321241274_What_is_the_Madder_with_Lydia%27s_Purple_A_Reexamination_of_the_Purpurarii_in_Thyatira_and_Philippi

7 Titus Kennedy, ‘Philippi of Macedonia,’ Drive Thru History, August 24, 2018. Online at: https://drivethruhistory.com/philippi-of-macedonia/