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King Solomon wore a unique purple; now we know what that looked like

“Royal purple” is a phrase for a reason — the color was hard to produce in an era when most dyes came from vegetables. The shade, referred to as argaman or tekhelet in Hebrew, is a particularly vibrant hue mentioned only a few times in the Bible, when describing drapings for kings, a carriage for King Solomon, the tabernacle in Exodus, and for coloring tzitzit, the fringed garment still worn by many observant Jews.

But while purple was clearly a holy color, we didn’t really know what it looked like — until now. In the Timna Valley in Israel, scholars have discovered a scrap of purple-dyed fabric from 1000 B.C.E, the era of Solomon and David, Israelite kings who were adorned in the color; their findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Previously, while scholars had understood that the biblical purple was dyed with an animal based secretion, it had been impossible to know the exact color it referred to. Now, thanks to this discovery, we can better understand the holy hue. Incredibly, the ancient fabric is still vibrant despite its age.

A purple thread under microscope

Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

While these are not the first ancient examples of purple fabric discovered — others were found at the Masada fortress in the Negev Desert and in a cave in the Judean Desert — these are the oldest, and first from the biblical era.

Scholars believe that the “true purple” color was produced from a combination of sea snail secretions; animal-based dyes were more vibrant and luxurious than the more common, and more muted, vegetable-based hues. However, Timna is over a hundred miles from the Mediterranean, where these mollusks live, making the color even more expensive than gold.

Professor Erez Ben-Yosef at Tel Aviv University believes the fabric scraps have the potential to upend our understanding of biblical society. “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,” he said.

Scholars at Bar Ilan University worked with Professor Zohar Amar and Dr. Naama Sukenik to reconstruct the dye extraction process; perhaps one day, we will be able to buy biblical purple garments in gift shops, or it will be once again used to dye tzitzit.

This is not the first time that a biblical artifact has produced a modern reconstruction. In 2019, scientists, along with master brewer Ilan Guttman, managed to brew beer using a yeast culture extracted from an ancient clay jug dating back to the time of the prophet Nehemiah, over 5,000 years ago. They [brewed a 14% mead and a 6% wheat beer](Their findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.); one of the scientists said it was “not bad,” though admittedly they used more modern brewing techniques.

And there is the Methuselah date palm, which was sprouted from a 2,000 year old seed that scientists managed to germinate. Now it is a thriving palm at the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel, and it does produce dates.

While these historical reconstructions can seem gimmicky, they are an important part of the field of experimental archaeology, which help researchers better understand ancient society by allowing them to test out the feasibility of hypotheses, better understand ancient agriculture and technological advancement, and simply gain a feel for the biblical era.

And besides, gimmicky or not, biblical beer sounds like great marketing.

Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter [@miraefox](].


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