A rare find has been revealed by the Israel Antiquities Authority this week. Scientists have confirmed that a 2,000 year old fabric was dyed using extract from the murex snail. Archaeologists in Israel have found thousands of pieces of fabric from the Roman period in the Judean Desert, the Negev, and the Arava region. However, this is the second piece of fabric to date that has ever been found in Israel that was treated with the murex-dye.
Dr. Na’ama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority who is in charge of the study is hopeful that three other fabrics in their possession from the Roman period may have also been dyed using the murex snail. The most recent find came from the Wadi Murabba’at caves located south of Qumran. Most textiles during the Roman period were dyed using plant derivatives. However, two purple-bordeaux colored textiles from the caves were discovered to be dyed with the murex snail and the American Cochineal insect.
Purple dye was considered a color of prestige during the Roman period so much so that at certain points in time the common masses were forbidden from wearing the color. Researchers are not yet sure just how the prestigious fabrics made their way to caves in the Judean desert. One theory proposed is that the fabrics may have belonged to Jewish refugees escaping the Bar-Kokhba uprising. Another theory is the fabrics were part of the possessions of a small Roman unit that was stationed near the Murabba’at caves during the revolt.
The murex snail is the source of the techelet color used to dye the coats of the high priests during the times of the Jewish temples. Techelet was also the color of the strings attached to the four corners of men’s garments known as tzitzit. It was first theorized by 19th century scholars that the murex snail was the source of techelet but only with modern science has it proven to be true.