Tyrian Purple: Where It Came From, and Where It Ended Up

An extremely rare chunk of Tyrian purple dye has been found in England, in the archaeological dig on the grounds of the Carlisle Cricket Club. The dye was found in the drainage area of the remnants of a Roman bathhouse dating back to the third century CE, during the reign of Roman emperor Septimius Severus. It is a rare find because Tyrian purple, also called imperial purple, was such an expensive dye that it was restricted to royalty, and someone lost it in the bathhouse drain. You can imagine the uproar that must have caused. It is also rare to find Tyrian purple in a solid form, as it was used mostly for paint and for dying fabric. Also, the specimen is still quite colorful after 1800 years!  

Tyrian purple was so expensive in its day because it was made from the glands of murex snails, the most productive being the species Hexaplex trunculus. It took about a quarter million snails to produce one ounce of dye. These sea snails live in shallow water and die when exposed to air. Yet the dye gland can only be extracted from a living snail (which causes its death), or the dye will deteriorate immediately, so each snail must be kept alive until the glands can be harvested, one by one. The process for doing all this is explained in this post. The smell of the dye was remarkably bad, as you would imagine the smell of rotting sea creatures to be, and would not yield to washing the fabric. Emperors who wore Tyrian purple had to be heavily perfumed to disguise it.

The name Tyrian purple came from the Phoenician city of Tyre, which, along with the city of Sidon, was a center of the dying industry. In fact, the word Phoenicia came from the Greek word Phoinkes, which means "the purple people." Both cities were wealthy from Tyrian purple, and both cities were known to smell awful. There is no mention of whether the chunk recovered in England still smells. You'll find even more links about Tyrian purple at Metafilter.     

(Image credit: Wardell Armstrong)


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