Shouts of excitement reverberate through a busy archaeological site – something strange has been spotted peeping out of the ground. Is it some fabulous gem? Or an opulent piece of ancient jewelry crafted from precious metals? Well actually, no. Instead it’s a vivid piece of purple fabric which has caused such animation at Timna, a corner of Israel that was once the site of a mineral mine. But while the tuft of half-buried textile might admittedly seem a little shabby to the untrained eye it is, in fact, even more valuable than gold…
Timna was mined for a range of minerals back in its day. But according to UNESCO – that’s the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, of course – the area is particularly rich in copper ore, a fact that was apparently clear to the ancient inhabitants of the region. Having said that, it wasn’t copper that caused such a buzz for the archaeologists working at the site.
Simply put, the team had found some frayed woollen threads clumped together into a sort of unshapely ball. It didn’t look altogether spectacular, and perhaps the archaeologists would’ve missed it if it hadn’t been so brightly colored. The purple hue undoubtedly made it stand out more than it otherwise would have.
But aside from making the fabric more eye-catching, this purple color was extremely important for another reason. In fact, it’s precisely the hue that makes this discovery so tremendously valuable. But to really understand why, we need to gain some context with the help of both the Old and New Testaments.
Theologians will tell you that the color purple is more than just a much-acclaimed Spielberg movie. Yes, this particular tint occupies a special place within these texts. More to the point, it’s been proposed that the shade was of particular sociological importance back when these scriptures were written. Hard evidence on such a theory, though, has generally been lacking. That is, until this incredible fabric was uncovered at Timna.
Even before this purple item had been discovered, however, Timna was already considered to be a noteworthy place for archaeologists. Situated a little less than 150 miles away from Jerusalem, the site is best described as a valley that’s been eroded into a semicircle shape. Within the formation itself, then, a number of depressions known as “wadis” can be found.
Timna has a remarkable history that’s of great interest to historians and archaeologists today. The abundance of copper in the region appears to have attracted ancient miners, who ultimately went on to leave their mark on the area. Today, we can see the signs of these people’s extraction attempts all throughout the site.
Shafts are littered across Timna, with various tools made for mining also having been discovered. Individual instruments date back to various points in time, implying that the site was in use across different eras. Some discoveries in the area, though, have specifically been traced back to the time of Ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom.
All over the coarse landscape of Timna, signs of copper mining activities can be seen. But it seems that the place was used for other purposes, too. For instance, there are indications that people may have lived there, too. Ruined structures that look like old camps have been discovered, as have areas that appear to have been used for worship.
What’s more, some ceramic artifacts from the Iron Age have also been discovered at Timna. But the site is perhaps most of interest because of what archaeologist Nelson Glueck had to say about it, following his own excavations there during the first half of the 20th century. According to Glueck, the site could be traced directly back to the rule of King Solomon.
The Bible tells us that King Solomon was once a great leader, the last man to rule over the United Kingdom of Israel. As monarch, he was said to be revered both because of his knowledge and insight and for the buildings constructed during his reign. He even supposedly had a knack for writing.
Solomon’s spell as ruler of Israel saw him take control of an extensive trade network that linked his territory with far-off lands including India, Africa and Arabia. He was a sociable leader, supposedly amassing a favorable collection of allies. For religious people today, Solomon is perhaps best remembered as the king who constructed the Temple of God, which was later razed by the Babylonians.
But even though Solomon is remembered for his achievements as King of Israel, his reign ended in catastrophe. Foes at home and abroad conducted attacks on his kingdom, leading to its breakdown. When Solomon passed away at 80 years of age, his son took over but failed to keep the realm together.
King Solomon is a fascinating and important historical figure, so any discoveries related to his rule would be hugely beneficial. That’s why his supposed connection to Timna is so noteworthy for historians. Ultimately, though, such a link has never been made, with any discovery that might confirm it having eluded archaeologists through the years.
But in 2013 a project got under way at Timna that may have taken a step towards establishing a connection between King Solomon and the site. Archaeologists Professor Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Naama Sukenik were the leaders of this undertaking, with a team of experts working under their direction. The results of this endeavor were then published in the PLOS One journal at the end of January 2021.
Basically, the most noteworthy discovery of this project was arguably that piece of old, purple fabric. You might reason that this doesn’t sound particularly significant, but the specific nature of this material was actually really important. It all had to do with the way that the textile had been treated.
The fabric had seemingly been exposed to a coloring agent that turned it purple. This is significant, because such a color has historically been associated with leaders and other members of affluent society. At one time, in fact, if a person possessed even one purple piece of material, then it could signify that they were hugely rich.
Purple is even specifically referenced in relation to King Solomon. In the Old Testament text known as the Song of Songs, for instance, there’s a passage that reads, “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.”
Purple is also linked to Jesus in writings that are associated with Christianity. He, too, is said to have adorned himself in garments of that special color. Still, all these claims of purple having once been an important hue for elites in the region have actually sparked debate among historians.
Skeptics have argued that producing purple fabrics as far back as King Solomon’s time would’ve been impossible. As such, any mentions of the color in religious texts must simply have been included for the sake of grandeur. But when the purple fabric from Timna was actually analyzed, this debate was put to rest.
When the archaeologists first uncovered the purple fabric, they presumed that it’d come from a relatively recent period. That’s because they didn’t believe that dye for creating purple could possibly have been produced as far back as King Solomon’s time. Would this exciting new find settle the argument?
Having analyzed the find, the experts discovered that it was actually about 3,000 years old. In other words, this material had been dyed purple at roughly the same time that Solomon himself is said to have lived. The implications of this revelation, then, are vast for historians concerned with the region.
As Dr. Ben-Yosef explained to the National Post newspaper in February 2021, this discovery marked a definite breakthrough for biblical historians. He said, “People are trying to understand if the biblical stories are history or imagination or fiction. For this time period, we [now] have physical evidence that this color was in use.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post newspaper, meanwhile, Dr. Sukenik explained that at the very least, this discovery illustrated that affluent individuals lived in the Timna area. She explained, “Purple was the color worn by the elites. While we cannot say who the fragments of fabrics we found belonged to, one thing is sure: if we had been able to open [Solomon’s predecessor] King David or King Solomon’s wardrobes, we would have found clothes dyed in this color.”
But why is it that rulers and other members of the upper echelons of ancient societies such as these would’ve chosen to dress themselves in purple? What was the reason for the color’s association with wealth and status? Well, it basically came down to the difficulties in producing the dye necessary to achieve such a hue.
During Solomon’s time, the majority of dyes were produced using insects or plants. But creating the dye for the purple seen on the Timna fabric required a far more intricate process. As such, the color of fabrics excavated from the era can really tell us a lot about what was going on in a given area.
The difficulty for historians has been that discovering ancient textiles is no easy feat. After all, over long periods of time they’re liable to disintegrate because they’re usually fed upon and destroyed by microscopically small creatures. But at Timna, many specimens seem to have survived through the millennia, which makes it a very important site today.
Since Dr. Sukenik and Dr. Ben-Yosef’s works began at Timna back in 2013 the team have discovered numerous specimens of colored fabrics. But it’s arguably the purple one which is the most important. And thanks to the group’s work, we know how the dye used for it was created. Basically, it was composed of several different snail species.
For the record, these snail varieties were the red-mouthed rock-shell, the banded dye-murex and the spiny dye-murex. In order to create the coloring, ancient workers would have extracted mucus from each of these species, before using the Sun’s rays to dry it out. They’d then have mixed the three types of desiccated slime together, forming a substance with a vivid purple hue.
A similar method was undertaken to create a color known as azure, which is also referenced within the Bible. It was a meticulous and grueling process, as the researchers themselves could attest. You see, in order to test their ideas, they replicated the techniques for producing these special dyes.
The investigations suggested that a huge number of snails would’ve been needed in order to create such unique coloring agents. We’re talking about thousands of them, all for the sake of making a mere 1 ounce of purple dye. Bearing that in mind, you’ll start to understand just why the mixture was prized more highly even than gold.
In Dr. Ben-Yosef’s January 2021 interview with The Jerusalem Post, he explained, “In recent years, we have been excavating a new site inside Timna known as ‘Slaves’ Hill.’ The name may be misleading, since far from being slaves, the laborers were highly skilled metalworkers. Timna was a production center for copper, the Iron-Age equivalent of modern-day oil.”
Dr. Ben-Yosef went on, “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 colored 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.”
Expanding on the theme to the National Post, Dr. Ben-Yosef elaborated further, claiming that he and his colleagues instantly recognized the fabric’s rarity. He said, “We couldn’t believe it was actually true purple. There were a lot of imitations in antiquity for this very expensive color.”
As previously mentioned, the team initially had doubts that the fabric could possibly have had its origins in Solomon’s time. But because the dye was made of snails, it contained organic components that could be carbon-dated. That’s how they learned how old the material really was.
Establishing that the fabric came from Solomon’s time is significant, because it says something about the people living around Timna during that era. We already know that these people were nomads, meaning that they never established permanent infrastructure in any one place. Some historians have argued that this implied that they weren’t as advanced as more settled societies.
Dr. Ben-Yosef, though, has suggested that the fact purple was used by these people implied that maybe they were more advanced than previously presumed. As he explained to The Jerusalem Times, “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.”
Basically, Dr. Ben-Yosef’s point is that the purple dye suggests that there may have been a distinct ruling class overseeing the activities of Timna’s nomads. This upends previous historical assumptions. That’s why he was talking about the search for King David’s palace. Maybe such a place never existed, because these people expressed their wealth in a different way.
As Dr. Ben-Yosef suggested to the National Post, “[The ancient inhabitants of the region] didn’t use stone-built palaces and walls to manifest their social status and power. But they could have used other things, including this true purple, which was in [those] times more expensive than gold.” This, potentially, is a groundbreaking insight for archaeologists concerned with the region.
No matter what the future findings might be, this purple fabric has already proven to be a special discovery. In essence, it’s helped to add depth and even reshape the ways in which we view the people who once lived at Timna. Ultimately, it may represent the start of a revolution in our understanding of this region’s fascinating history.