Purple dye sample

Source: © Lydia Berger et al

The dye Tyrian purple can be produced by fermenting mucous secretions from certain species of sea snails

Chemical analysis of ancient pigment samples has helped archaeologists identify a site on the Greek island of Aegina where the dye Tyrian purple was manufactured 3600 years ago. Guided by archaeological, zoological and chemical evidence, the researchers conclude that the settlement of Cape Kolonna contained a purple dye workshop that may have practised ritual animal sacrifice.

Tyrian purple, also known as royal purple, was an extremely valuable dye associated with nobility throughout the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age. The dye is produced by fermenting mucous secretions from sea snails. Several different species of snails can be used to make a purple dye, but only three Mediterranean species were exploited at economically relevant levels – the banded dye-murex (Hexaplex trunculus), the spiny dye-murex (Bolinus brandaris) and the red-mouthed rock shell (Stramonita haemastoma). The final shade of textiles dyed with Tyrian purple could range from greenish–blue to purple–red depending on the species of snail used, and how the fabric was processed.

Archaeologists from the University of Salzburg, Austria working at Cape Kolonna, the main settlement on the island of Aegina, found two pottery fragments with well-preserved purple pigment adhered to the interiors. HPLC-UV analysis of the samples revealed high levels of purple monobromoindigotin (MBI ) and moderate amounts of the dark red dibromoindigotin (DBI), lighter red 6,6-dibromoindirubin (DBIR) and blue indigotin (IND).

Greece map

Source: © Lydia Berger et al

Location of the Greek island of Aegina where the Tyrian purple workshop was found

Although IND and its isomer indirubin (INR) can originate from plant dyes, the researchers found no INR in the pigment samples. This, combined with the presence of DBI, which is considered a strong identifying marker for Tyrian purple, led the authors to conclude that the excavated dye is indeed of gastropod origin. Furthermore, the high MBI and lower DBI content of the pigment suggests that the purple dye produced at Cape Kolonna was almost exclusively made from the banded dye murex.

Of the 2364 gastropod shell samples found and identified, 84% belonged to the Hexaplex genus. The researchers hypothesise that the other species represent either accidental additions to the snail catch, or snails used for food rather than dye production. While not certain, the team believes that the high homogeneity of the snail species present could indicate that they were hand harvested, as opposed to caught via baited traps.

In addition to tools and facilities for processing the sea snails, including a pit filled with shells, a grindstone and pounders, the researchers found calcined and burnt bones identified as belonging to young piglets, lambs or kids. They theorise that these young animals may have been sacrificed and burnt as offerings to protect the purple dye workshop.