Historical discovery in southern Israel offers glimpse into wardrobe of King David and King Solomon

February 1, 2021 by TPS
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Groundbreaking research conducted by Israeli archaeologists enabled them to recover scraps of fabric dyed in royal purple from the time of King David and King Solomon, some 3,000 years ago, the first time that purple-dyed Iron Age textiles have been found in Israel, or indeed throughout the Southern Levant.

Wool textile fragment decorated by threads dyed with Royal Purple, ~1000 BCE. (Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Book of the Song of Songs describes how King Solomon “made for himself the carriage; he made it of wood from Lebanon. Its posts he made of silver, its base of gold. Its seat was upholstered with purple, its interior inlaid with love.”

For the first time, rare evidence has been found of fabric dyed with this royal purple.

While examining the coloured textiles from Timna Valley, an ancient copper production district in southern Israel, in a study that has lasted several years, the researchers were surprised to find remnants of woven fabric, a tassel and fibres of wool dyed with royal purple.

Direct radiocarbon dating confirms that the finds date from approximately 1,000 BCE, corresponding to the biblical monarchies of David and Solomon in Jerusalem.

The dye, which is produced from species of mollusc found in the Mediterranean, over 300 km from Timna, is often mentioned in the Bible and appears in various Jewish and Christian contexts.

The research was carried out by Dr Naama Sukenik from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, from the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Prof. Zohar Amar, Dr David Iluz and Dr Alexander Varvak from Bar-Ilan University and Dr Orit Shamir from the IAA.

“This is a very exciting and important discovery,” explains Dr Naama Sukenik, curator of organic finds at the IAA.

“This is the first piece of textile ever found from the time of David and Solomon that is dyed with the prestigious purple dye. In antiquity, purple attire was associated with the nobility, with priests, and of course with royalty. The gorgeous shade of the purple, the fact that it does not fade, and the difficulty in producing the dye, which is found in minute quantities in the body of molluscs, all made it the most highly valued of the dyes, which often cost more than gold,” she explained.

“Until the current discovery, we had only encountered mollusc-shell waste and potsherds with patches of dye, which provided evidence of the purple industry in the Iron Age. Now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of the dyed fabrics themselves, preserved for some 3,000 years,” she added.

Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef noted that an archaeological expedition has been excavating continuously at Timna since 2013, including a new site known as “Slaves’ Hill,” a misleading name, since the labourers were highly skilled metalworkers. Timna was a production centre for copper, the Iron Age equivalent of modern-day oil. Copper smelting required advanced metallurgical understanding that was a guarded secret, and those who held this knowledge were the ‘Hi-Tech’ experts of the time.

Slaves’ Hill is the largest copper-smelting site in the valley and it is filled with piles of industrial waste such as slag from the smelting furnaces. One of these heaps yielded three scraps of coloured cloth.

“The color immediately attracted our attention, but we found it hard to believe that we had found true purple from such an ancient period,” said Ben-Yosef.

“As a result of the region’s extremely dry climate, we are also able to recover organic materials such as textile, cords and leather from the Iron Age, from the time of David and Solomon, providing us with a unique glimpse into life in biblical times. If we excavated for another hundred years in Jerusalem, we would not discover textiles from 3,000 years ago. The state of preservation at Timna is exceptional and it is paralleled only by that at much later sites such as Masada and the Judean Desert Caves,” he added.

True purple, Argaman in Hebrew, was produced from three species of mollusc indigenous to the Mediterranean Sea: The Banded Dye-Murex (Hexaplex trunculus), the Spiny Dye-Murex (Bolinus brandaris), and the Red-Mouthed Rock-Shell (Stramonita haemastoma).

The dye was produced from a gland located within the body of the mollusc by means of a complex chemical process that lasted several days.

Most scholars agree that the two precious dyes, Argaman (true purple) and Techelet, light blue or azure, were produced from the purple dye mollusc under different conditions of exposure to light. When exposed to light, azure is obtained whereas, without light exposure, a purple hue is obtained.

These colours are often mentioned together in ancient sources, and both have symbolic and religious significance to this day. The Temple priests, David and Solomon, and Jesus of Nazareth are all described as having worn clothing coloured with purple.

The analytical tests conducted at Bar Ilan University’s laboratories, together with dyes that were reconstructed by Prof. Zohar Amar and Dr. Naama Sukenik, can identify the species used to dye the Timna textiles and the desired hues.

To reconstruct the mollusc dyeing process, Amar travelled to Italy where he cracked thousands of molluscs, which the Italians eat, and produced raw material from their dye glands that were used in hundreds of attempts to reconstruct ancient dyeing.

“The practical work took us back thousands of years,” said Amar, “and it has allowed us to better understand obscure historical sources associated with the precious colours of azure and purple.”

The dye was identified with High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), an advanced analytical instrument that indicated the presence of unique dye molecules, originating only in certain species of mollusc.

Sukenik said that “most of the coloured textiles found at Timna, and in archaeological research in general, were dyed using various plant-based dyes that were readily available and easier to dye with. The use of animal-based dyes is regarded as much more prestigious, and served as an important indicator for the wearer’s high economic and social status.”

“The remnants of the purple-dyed cloth that we found are not only the most ancient in Israel but in the Southern Levant in general. We also believe that we have succeeded in identifying the double-dyeing method in one of the fragments, in which two species of mollusc were used in a sophisticated way, to enrich the dye, “she noted.

This technology is described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, from the first century CE, and the dye it produced was considered the most prestigious.

Ben-Yosef identifies the copper-production centre at Timna as part of the biblical Kingdom of Edom, which bordered the kingdom of Israel to the south. According to him, the dramatic finds should revolutionize the concepts of nomadic societies in the Iron Age.

“The new finds reinforce our assumption that there was an elite at Timna, attesting to a stratified society. In addition, since the molluscs are indigenous to the Mediterranean, this society obviously maintained trade relations with other peoples who lived on the coastal plain. However, we do not have evidence of any permanent settlements in the Edomite territory,” he explained.

The Edomite Kingdom was a kingdom of nomads in the early Iron Age. When we think of nomads, it is difficult for us to free ourselves from comparisons with contemporary Bedouins, and we, therefore, find it hard to imagine kings without magnificent stone palaces and walled cities. Yet in certain circumstances, nomads can also create a complex socio-political structure, one that the biblical writers could identify as a kingdom.

This whole debate has repercussions for our understanding of Jerusalem in the same period, Ben-Yosef believes.

“We know that the Tribes of Israel were originally nomadic and that the process of settlement was gradual and prolonged. Archaeologists are looking for King David’s palace. However, David may not have expressed his wealth in splendid buildings, but with objects more suited to a nomadic heritage such as textiles and artifacts. It is wrong to assume that if no grand buildings and fortresses have been found, then biblical descriptions of the United Monarchy in Jerusalem must be literary fiction. Our new research at Timna has shown us that even without such buildings, there were kings in our region who ruled over complex societies, formed alliances and trade relations, and waged war on each other. The wealth of a nomadic society was not measured in palaces and monuments made of stone, but in things that were no less valued in the ancient world – such as the copper produced at Timna and the purple dye that was traded with its copper smelters,” he said.


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