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Israel Unearths First Ever Biblical Purple Dye Factory

July 2, 2019

by: Edgar Asher

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Vessels and fragments found at Tel Shikmona, south of Haifa

Tuesday, 2 July 2019 | Archeological findings uncovered in the 1960s and 70s have recently revealed a wonderful secret—the first facility dating to the biblical period for the production of prestigious purple-dyed textiles has been uncovered at Tel Shikmona, south of Haifa.

“Until now, there has not been any meaningful direct archeological evidence of workshops for the production of purple-colored textiles from the Iron Age—the biblical period—not even in Tyre and Sidon, which were the main Phoenician centers for the manufacture of purple dye. If we have identified our findings correctly, Tel Shikmona on the Carmel coast has just become one of the most unique archeological sites in the region,” explained Prof. Ayelet Gilboa and Ph.D. candidate Golan Shalvi from the University of Haifa, who are studying the finds that have been guarded in various storerooms in Haifa for the last half century.

Tel Shikmona is situated on a small coastal promontory on the southern outskirts of Haifa. The site is known mainly for its surrounding Byzantine settlement, including some splendid mosaics. The Iron Age settlement dates from the 11th to 6th centuries BC, corresponding in biblical terms to the period of the judges, the united monarchy (Saul, David and Solomon), the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the Assyrian/Babylonian epoch. It occupies just about five dunams (a bit more than one acre) out of the 100-dunam [24.7 acres] site of the Byzantine city at its peak. A section of the tell was excavated thoroughly between 1963–1977 by Dr. Yosef Elgavis on behalf of the Haifa Museum, with the active support of the then Haifa Mayor Abba Hushi. The site was known by archeologists and experts to have yielded rich material findings; for various reasons, however, these have never been published in a comprehensive manner.

The fact that the totality of the finds has never been thoroughly examined spread an aura of mystery over the small biblical settlement. Archeologists could not entirely understand why the settlement was established on such a small promontory, since the rocky coastline in this area would not have allowed boats to land safely. Extensive agricultural land is not available around Shikmona, so agriculture too could not have been the purpose of this settlement—the site does not even lie on any major thoroughfare.

Now that Professor Gilboa and Golan Shalvi have been granted access to Dr.  Elgavish’s finds, the secret of Shikmona may at last begin to reveal itself.

In the past, because of the biblical record, it was assumed that Shikmona—and the entire Carmel region—[was] part of the United Kingdom and then the kingdom of Israel until its later destruction by the Assyrians. Some of the site’s archaeological attributes, such as a casemate wall and a so-called four-room house reinforced this impression since they are considered markers of the Israelite culture of the Iron Age.

Nevertheless, according to the findings examined, the researchers propose to associate the site with the Phoenician world.

Let us stop for a moment to explain how purple dye was produced in biblical times. The most prestigious clothes in this era were dyed with the famous purple (Hebrew argaman and techelet), produced from the glands of maritime snails of the ‘murex’ snail family.  Since thousands of snails were needed in order to produce a single kilogram [2.2 lbs.] of dye, wearing purple clothes became the privilege of nobility and royalty and a by-word for dominion and power. In many kingdoms, ordinary citizens were forbidden to wear such clothes. The secret process for the manufacture and dyeing of purple was guarded jealously, and even today the ancient techniques are not fully understood.

Thanks to the latest insights, the researchers can now cast new light on the importance of Shikmona. This small isolated site was not a village or a settlement at all, but rather a fortified factory for the production of purple dye and the dyeing of textiles and wool.

What about the Israelite character of the site? “Today it is already clear to us that casemate walls and four-roomed houses are not exclusive to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. For example, the Phoenicians spread the idea of a casemate walls to their colonies in the far west, such as in Spain and Portugal. However, reality was far more complicated, and we hope that the in-depth research we are currently conducting will reveal the character of this site and the identity of those who worked there,” the researchers noted.

Posted on July 2, 2019

Source: (Excerpt from a press release originally published by Ashernet on July 1, 2019.)

Photo Credit: Haifa University/Ashernet

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