Israeli archaeologists have uncovered three rare, Roman-era fabrics believed to have been dyed using murex snail extracts in unique colors mentioned in the Bible.
Israel Antiquities Authority researchers say they have identified three pieces of cloth dyed in colors considered the most valued at the time, including special shades of blue, purple and crimson-scarlet — colors cited in scripture. The textiles are believed to have been used in the clothing of wealthy residents 2,000 years ago.
“The importance of this fabric is extremely significant as there are practically no parallels for it in the archaeological record,” Yoli Shwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority spokeswoman said in a statement.
In the book of Exodus chapter 25, God gives Moses instructions for building the tabernacle during which blue and purple and scarlet yarns were specified. These were also the colors to be used for the making of the priestly garments, as described in Exodus chapter 27.
The fabrics were discovered in the Wadi Murabba‘at caves south of Qumran, the area in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found during the 1940s and 1950s.
The unique make of the fabrics was discovered during a wider study of 180 textiles found in Judean Desert caves conducted by Dr. Naama Sukenik.
“Among the many textiles, most of which were dyed using substances derived from plants, were two purple-bordeaux [crimson] colored textiles – parts of tunics that were double dyed utilizing two of the most expensive materials in antiquity: Murex trunculus (Hexaplex trunculus) and American Cochineal insect,” the Israel Antiquities Authority spokeswoman added.
The Tazpit News Agency further explained: “A third textile, made of wool, indicating the thread fibers were dyed by exposing them to sunlight or heated after having been dyed, represent another use of the murex snail for achieving a shade of blue, and it is possible that the item in question is an indigo fabric made by means of a technique similar to making the tekhelet (blue) in tzitzit, the four-fringed garment worn by Jews.”
The purple shade was considered to have been the most valued of the pigments used during the period, the Hebrew website Walla reported.
“Fabrics dyed purple testified to the prestige of the garment and to the social status of its owner. In some periods, purple clothing was permitted to the emperor and his family only,” Walla reported, adding that the price of the dye at times reached the price of gold.
Israel Antiquities Authority researchers say they still don’t know how the pricey fabrics got into the caves. One theory is they may have belonged to Jewish refugees on the run during the Bar Kochba Revolt which began in 132-136 A.D., during which the Jews rebelled against Roman Empire rule of the Holy Land. Alternatively, the clothing may have belonged to a Roman military unit living in the caves.