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Ancient dyes

Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: dyes: manufacture | purpur |
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"Purple" versus "Purpur". Originally "Purpur" is a colouring matter made of the so called Purpurschnecke (purple-snail). The purple fluid was of a slightly bluish, brilliant medium dark red (a nice interpretation, isn't it?) colour shade and extremely rare, so it became the colour of rulers and kings.
Ralf Stelter, 27 June 1999

Purple was indeed extracted from the marine gastropod mollusc "murex", which has a spiny shell and lives near the coasts of Mediterranean sea.(length up to 8 cm for the largest species). The use of murex as a dye is attested since the first half of second millennium at Ugarit, but mainly during the first millennium on the coast of Phenicia, where Tyr and Sidon exerted a monopole on fabric dying. These cities were stopovers on the Silk Road not only for transportation reasons, but also because silk could be dyed there. To extract the dye, shells were broken and the molluscs were macerated in basins. The obtained dye could vary from pink to violet through crimson by using different sun-drying times. Piles of shells have been found near ancient dying places near Tyr and Sidon, and also Athenes and Pompei. Basins of the ancient Carthagenese city of Kerkouane are still coloured by red dye.

Because of resistance of the dye and difficulty in harvesting the animal, purple fabrics were expensive and highly estimated. They were only used for the cloth of noblemen, kings, priests and judges. The purple colour, similar to blood, symbol of life, became a sign of temporal and spiritual power. Under the Roman Republic, the chief-commanders of the armies wore the "paludamentum", a purple coat. The toga, sign of Roman citizenship, had a purple stripe. The toga of triumphators was fully purple and had a golden border. The tunic worn by Senators under the toga had a wide purple stripe, and was called "laticlava". The stripe of the knights' tunic ("angusticlava") was narrower. Under Roman Empire, the "paludamentum" was the privilege of the Emperor. The Roman Catholic Church still uses the purple colour for cardinals ("pourpre cardinalice"). Nowadays, the main component of the dye (dibromo-indigo) can easily be obtained through chemical synthesis.

Source: Encyclopaedia Universalis.

Ivan Sache, 05 July 1999

There are references to the colour red - shirts - as an emotional indicator, in the Icelandic Sagas - some tapestry fragments have survived from circa 1000 AD but the possibilities of natural dyes from berries plant roots, barks for wool have been well researched in the various Nordic schools of traditional weaving.

These resources depend on climate, but there is also a race of multicoloured sheep on the Faroe Islands which give other possibilities of blending fibres to make middle colours. So try researching the ancient wool producing countries

Red paint can be simply made from animal blood and milk or egg - barns and boats Contact National museum in Copenhagen and Viking ship museum in Roskilde Denmark.

Red occurs in early heraldry and flags - so the technic must have been known.

The prehistorical world is much closer in the Nordic periphery of Europe, they have only been Christian for a thousand years and were never in the Roman Empire

The use of red ochre in the lost funeray rituals of stone age hunter gatherers is well documented by Danish archeologists.
Hugh Watkins, 07 July 1999

A final note, since this thread was originally sparked by a discussion of heraldry: Linguistically, the English "turquoise" is thought to be cognate to the Hebrew "tekheleth," and is used as a direct translation in popular modern Bibles of Jewish authorship. The description of argaman seems to resemble the obscure heraldic tincture of "sanguine," if indeed it ever existed officially. Apparently, sanguine was only rarely used and sometimes seen as having even more doubtful authenticity than tenne' (or tawny). The few books that I have read on the subject (I am no expert) were loathe to include it in their lists of proper heraldic tinctures and such. It would supposedly resemble what we might call maroon, burgundy or russet--quite distinct from purpure or the others. I wonder if the name's reference to blood necessarily connoted human blood. Perhaps it alluded to the blood of one of the aforementioned species? Gules is also said to have an etymology involving blood, possibly related to the English "ghoul." This seems far more likely to have recalled the color of human blood.
M. Breier, 06 July 1999

I would very much expect 'turquoise' to be related to 'Turkey'. I seriously doubt the Hebrew connection.
Ole Andersen

I understand that "Turquoise" is French for "Turkish," but I meant to suggest that perhaps the phonic resemblance (identical) is coincidental or a misnomer. To be sure, there are many homonyms in English, such as Turkey (the country) and turkey (the flightless fowl). Hebrew is similar, where the same bird is called "hodu," which also means "India." All of which is passing strange because said animal is native to the Americas.

Also, remember that Turkey, in its incarnation as the Ottoman Empire, had Palestine as a province, among many others from which came the Purpura and its dye. So perhaps there is a connection after all, even in the event of no direct etymological derivation. I have worked in the field of onomastics for a while, so I have had some exposure to the phenomenon of names changing through the ages as they pass from one generation to the next and from one culture to the next. Sometimes confusion and mistakes occur. Some lookalikes and soundalikes are unrelated. I would not rule out the turquoise-tekheleth connection outright. I have seen much stranger word evolutions take place and all the necessary phonetic elements are present in these two words to make it possible. In a related vein, the color green, which is regarded as sacred by Islam, is rumored to have acquired its special status through its association with tekheleth. This is not supported, to my knowledge, by Islamic teachings, but was observed by Jewish scholars who lived in the Levant during the time of Islam's birth and growth. I believe the official story is that the archangel Gabriel descended from the heavens and presented Mohammed with a turban of that color, which supposedly was used as the first flag of the Fatimid dynasty. This does not necessarily obviate the preceding explanation. If the connections for these things were more concrete than they are, I would have backed them up with tons of evidence. But they are not, so I did not. I thought them noteworthy nonetheless.
M. Breier, 07 July 1999

This is something that had actually been on my mind for some time as it is directly related to the issue of tekhelet/hilazon/tsitsiyot/beged shel arba kanfot/talit gadol that I touched upon in my earlier treatment of Israeli flags and arms, and traditional Jewish emblems and colors. It is relevant to understanding all nomenclature regarding color usage in the ancient world.

What were the colors used by peoples of the ancient world? Were they comparable to how we understand color today? In particular, I will examine the matter of pigment and dye. This is a lengthy treatment and should best be sent in several parts, for your ease of consumption. I will also change the subject header to "Dyes and Colors of the Ancient World," to better focus on the material.

I will quote extensively from the supercommentary of the Arak, a Hebrew Bible scholar and historian who lived in the past generation. He culled the glosses of sages from many cultures who lived over the past three millennia and digested their observations and elucidations into a sort of annotated editorial for Scripture. He was especially concerned with the technical aspects of certain minutiae, such as color and dye.

Much of what we know about the dyes tekhelet, argaman and others, and hence coloration of fabrics and their relation to our modern reds and blues, come from description of their use in constructing the Tabernacle. Following are details regarding their presence there, along with pointers to their origin and appearance.

Exodus 25:1-9 "God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and have them bring Me an offering. Take My offering from everyone whose heart impels him to give. The offering that you take from them shall consist of the following: Gold, silver, copper, sky-blue [wool], dark red [wools, [wool dyed with] crimson worm, linen, goats' wool, reddened rams' skins, blue-processed skins, acacia wood, oil for the lamp, spices for the anointing oil and the sweet-smelling incense, and sardonyxes and other precious stones for the ephod and the breastplate. They shall make Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them. You must make the Tabernacle and all its furnishings following the plan that I am showing you."

-- sky-blue (Saadia; Yad, Tzitzith 2:1; Josephus 3:6:4). Tekheleth in Hebrew. According to others, it was greenish-blue or aquamarine (Rashi; Ibn Ezra; cf. Yerushalmi, Berakhoth 1:5), deep blue, the color of evening sky (Menachem, quoted in Rashi on Numbers 15:38), azure or ultramrine (Radak, Sherashim) or hyacinth blue (Septuagint; cf. Arukh s.v. Teynun). The Talmud states that it resembled indigo (Menachoth 42b). This blue dye was taken from an animal known as the chilazon (Tosefta, Menachoth 9:6). It is a boneless invertabrate (Yerushalmi, Shabbath 1:3), ahving a shell that grows with it (Devarim rabbah 7:11). It is thus identified with a snail of the purpura family (Ravya on Berakhoth 3b; Mossef HeArukh, s.v. Purpura). The Septuagint also occasionally translates tekheleth as oloporphoros, which indicates that it was made from the pure dye of the purpura (see next note). There were some who identified the the chilazon as the common cuttlefish, Sephia officinalis (Eyn Tekheleth, p. 29), but most evidence contradicts this. It is known that the ancient Tyrians were skilled in making this sky-blue dye (2 Chronicles 2:6; cf. Ezekiel 27:16), and that the snails from which it was made were found on the coast of northern Israel and Phoenicia (Targum Yonathan on Deuteronomy 33:19; Shabbath 26a; Strabo 16:757). This indicates that it was the famed Tyrian blue. Around the ancient Tyrian dyeworks, shells of Murex trunculus and Murex brandaris are found. These dyes were also made in Greece and Italy, (Ezekiel 27:7, Targum ad loc.; cf. Iliad 4:141; Aristotle, History of Animals 5:15), and remains of these ancient dyeworks have been found in Athens and Pompeii. The shells found there were Purpura haemastoma and Murex brandaris (cf. Pliny 9:61). Some have identified the chilazon with Janthina pallia or Janthina bicolor, deep water snails which produce a light violet-blue (hyacinth) dye (Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi Herzog; The Dying of Purple in Ancient Israel, Unpublished 1919). In ancient times, animals such as these were renowned for their dyes (Pliny 9:60, 61). The dye is removed from a cyst near the head of the snail, preferable while the animal is still alive (Shabbath 75a; Aristotle, History of Animals 5:15). It is boiled with alum as a clarifier (Menachoth 42b, Rashi ad loc.; cf. Rashi, Avodah Zarah 33b) to produce the dye. The wool is then grounded with alkanet root or aloe wood in order for it to take the dye well (Yad, Tzitzith 2:2; Pliny 9:63). Only a few drops of dye could be obtained from each snail (Pliny 9:61), and according to one modern researcher, over 8000 snails would be needed to make a single cubic centimeter of the dye. This explains its high cost and its restriction to royalty. See note on Numbers 15:38.

-- wool. (Yevamoth 4b; Rashi). Nothing other than wool or linen could be used for the priestly vestments (Kelayim 9:1). Some say that the verse here is speaking of dyed silk (Abrabanel; cf. Ibn Ezra), but this goes against Talmudic tradition (Bachya; Sedey Chemed, Chanukah 14, 8:52).

-- dark red. (Ibn Ezra; Ibn Janach; Pesikta Rabathai 20:3, 86a). Argaman in Hebrew. Othres state that it is similar to lake, a purplish red dye extracted from lac (Radak, Sherashim; Rambam on Kelayim 9:1; cf. Yad, Kely HaMikdash 8:13). Although the Septuagint translates argaman as porphura or porphoreus, which means purple, in ancient times, "purple" denoted a deep crimson, most notably the dye obtained from the purpura snail. Ancient sources indicate that it was close to the color of fresh blood (Iliad 4:141). Talmudic sources state that argaman was obtained from a living creature (Yerushalmi, Kelayim 9:1), and other sources indicate that it was an aquatic creature (I Maccabees 4:23; Abarbanel on 25:10). Like tekheleth it was obtained from Tyre (2 Chronicles 2:6, cf. Ezekiel 27:16) as well as Greece or Italy (Ezekiel 27:7, Targum ad loc.). This dye was therefore most probably derived from from a species of the murex or purpura snail. The Septuagint translation, porphura, also denotes a purple snail. Ancient sources indicate that snails caught in the north yielded a blue dye, while those caught in the south yielded a reddish dye (Aristotle, History of Animals 5:15). Argaman was most probably obtained from the "red purpura," Purpura haemastoma, known to the ancients as the buccinum (Pliny 9:61; see Reshith Limudim 1:6). In ancient times, material dyed with this color was extremely valuable (cf. Shabbath 90a; Kelim 27:12), and it was weighed as carefully as gold (Kelim 29:4). The Hebrew word argaman is obscure, but it is thought to be related to ragman, Sanskrit for red. Others say that it is related to the root arag, meaning "to weave" (BeMidbar Rabbah 4:17, 12:4). Some therefore say that it consisted of two types of thread or three colors woven together (Raavad, Kley HaMikdash 8:13). Some say that it is an iridescent dye, having greenish overtones (Zohar 2:139a; Tikkuney Zohar 70, 127b, top, 124a, top; Maaseh Choshev 3:2).

-- crimson worm (Saadia; radak, Sherashim; Ramban on Parah 3:10; Septuagint). Tolaath shani in Hebrew. Some sources indicate that it was close to orange (Pesikta Rabbathai 20:3, Radal ad loc. 36) or pink (Zohar 2:139a as quoted in Maaseh Choshev 3:2). This dye is produced by a mountainous worm (Tosefta, Menachoth 9:16) that looks like a red pea (Rashi on Isaiah 1:18; Yad, Parah Adumah 3:2). This is the Kermes biblicus, known as kermez in Arabic (cf. Saadia; Ralbag translates it as grana, Spanish for cochineal), the cochineal insect, or shield louse, that lives on oak trees in the Holy Land (cf. Pliny 21:22). There are two species, Kermes nahalali and Kermes greeni. In the early speing, when the females are filled with red eggs and become pea-shaped, the red dye can be squeezed out of them (MeAm Lo'ez). See Leviticus 14-4-6, Numbers 19:6.

-- linen. Shesh in Hebrew, literally, "six," indicating a six ply linen thread (Yoma 71b). For this purpose, Egyptian linen, which was particularly silk-like, was used (Saadia; Ibn Ezra).

-- goats' wool. Like angora (Saadia; Rashi; Abarbanel) or mohair (MeAm Lo'ez, tiptik in Turkish). Or, "goats' hair (Rashbam; Ibn Ezra). reddened... Dyed red (Saadia; Rashi; Abarbanel). Or, according to others, reddened by some process while the animal is still alive (cf. Tosefta, Shabbath 91:13; Yerushalmi, Shabbath 7:2).

--blue processed skins (Rabbi Yehudah, Yerushalmi, Shabbath 2:3; Arukh s.v. Teynun; Koheleth Rabbah 1:9; Josephus 1:6:1, 3:6:4; Septuagint; Aquilla). Tachash in Hebrew. Others have "black leather" (Saadia; Ibn Janch), that is, leather worked in such a manner as to come out dark and waterproof (Avraham ben HaRambam). In ancient Egyptian, tachash also denotes a kind of specially worked leather. See Ezekiel 16:10. Other sources identify tachash as a species of animal. Some say that it is the ermine (Rabbi Nechemia, Yerushalmi, loc, cit.; Arukh, s.v. glaksinon). The word galy axeinon denotes the ermine, a member of the weasel family imported by the Axenoi (see Jastrow). Others state that it a member of the badger family (Rashi on Ezekiel 16:10). Others say that it is a colorful one-horned animal known as a keresh (Yerushalmi, loc. cit.; Shabbath 28b; Tanchuma 6; Rashi; cf. Chullin 59b). Some say that this is a species of wild ram (Ralbag), possibly an antelope, okape or giraffe. Some see the one-horned creature as the narwhal (Mondon monoceros) which has its left tooth developed into a single long horn-like appendage. This animal, which can grow to be over 16 feet long, is occasionally found on the southern Sinai shores. In Arabic, tukhush denotes the sea cow or dugong (Dugong hempirchi) an aquatic mammal which is found on the shores of the Sinai. Some thus say that the tachash is a type of seal, since its skins were used for the tabernacle's roof, and sealskins were often used for this purpose (cf. Pliny 2:56).

Numbers 15:37-41 "God spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and have them make tassels on the corners of their garments for all generations. They shall include a twist of sky-blue wool in the corner tassels. These shall be your tassels, and when you see them, you shall remember all of God's commandments so as to keep them. You will then not stray after your heart and eyes, which [in the past] have led you to immorality. You will thus remember and keep all My commandments, and be holy to your God. I am God your Lord, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am God your Lord."

God spoke to Moses... This is the third paragraph of the Sh'ma [manifesto of the Jewish religion -MB] tassels. Tzitzith in Hebrew. Also see Deuteronomy 22:12 The tzitzith-tassels consist of four strings doubled over so that eight strings appear to hang from each corner. (Menachoth 39b). There is also an area where a single string is wound around the other seven, consisting of one-third of the tassel (Menachoth 39a). This must be held in place by a knot (Yevamoth 4a, b). The custom is that there be five knots and four areas of winding on each tzitzith-tassel (Targum Yonathan). The prevailing custom is that these wound areas have respectively 7, 8, 11 and 13 windings.

-- twist. Some say that this denotes a single thread made of two strands twisted together (Sifri; Targum Yonathan). According to this, only one of the seven strings would be dyed blue (Yad, Tzitzith 1:6). This was done by dying half of one of the strings before it was inserted (Teshuvoth Ramban, P'er HaDor 21). A second opinion is that the word pethil here denotes a doubled-over string (Tosafoth, Menachoth 38a, s.v. HaTekheleth, end, 39b, s.v. U'posle-hah). This may agree with the opinion that an entire thread was dyed blue, so that when it was doubled over, two out of the eight strings were blue (Raavad on Yad, Tzitzith 1:6). There is a third opinion that the word pethil denotes the thread that is wound around the others (Rashi, Menachoth 39b, s.v. U'posle-hah; Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:5). Thus, it was the blue thread that was wound around the others. According to this opinion, the number of blue threads is not defined, and may be equal to the number of white threads. There were thus four blue and four white strings in the tassel (Rashi, Tosafoth, Menachoth 38a, s.v. HaTekheleth). If the special blue wool is not available, the fringes can be made entirely white (Menachoth 38a). [this is the common practice today -MB]

--sky blue wool. See note on Exodus 25:4 Deuteronomy 22:12 "Make yourself bound tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself."

--bound tassels. Gedilim in Hebrew (cf. 1 Kings 7:17; Targum on Exodus 28:22) See Numbers 15:38. The ritual tzitzith-tassels are made by doubling over four threads so that eight appear to be coming from each corner. One of these threads is longer than the rest, and this is wound around the rest. This section, around which a thread is wound, constitutes one third of the length of the tassel, and is called the gedil. (Menachoth 39a; Rashi ibid. 39b, s.v. U'pothli-hu; Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:5). Or, "doubled tassels" (Sifri; Menachoth 39b).
M. Breier, 06 July 1999

Sorry if I made it seem as though the only civilization taking place back then was in the Middle East. It's just that that's where my expertise lies and I can only write about what I know. My interest was piqued by mention of the purpura animal, with which I am familiar. I only meant to examine what exactly was meant by our ancestors when they said red, blue, purple, etc. I would be interested in hearing more about the development of coloring in Scandinavia if you can provide it. There is, by the way, some mention of breeding naturally varicolored wool-producing sheep in the area of my study as well. It is an interesting corollary.
M. Breier, 07 July 1999

Interesting. Apparently people a couple of thousand years ago described dyed textiles (and leathers?) by the source of the dye rather than by the exact hue that resulted. This is confusing to us because our practice is the opposite.
John Ayer, 07 July 1999

Well, not really, since in the primary case the animal is called a hilazon whereas its dye is called tekheleth. But the name of the dye became synonymous with its color, whatever that was.
M. Breier, 07 July 1999