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Tyrian Purple Dye: Ancients Used Marine Snails to Make It

Tyrian Purple Dye: Ancients Used Marine Snails to Make It

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CreatureCast: Tyrian purple was one of the only bright dyes available to ancient civilizations. This sought-after dye was created from the extracts of marine snails.

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Tyrian Purple Dye: Ancients Used Marine Snails to Make It

Tyrian purple

Tyrian purple (Greek, πορφύρα , porphyra, Latin: purpura ), also known as Tyrian red or 'phoenician red', royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye, is a bromine-containing reddish-purple natural dye. It is a secretion produced by several species of predatory sea snails in the family Muricidae, rock snails originally known by the name Murex.

After years of trial and error - and after getting used to the foul stench - Mohamed Ghassen Nouira has cracked how to make the prized purple dye used for royal and imperial robes in ancient times

Tunis (AFP) - A Tunisian man has pieced together bits of a local secret linked to ancient emperors: how to make a prized purple dye using the guts of a sea snail.

"At the beginning, I didn't know where to start," said Mohamed Ghassen Nouira, who heads a consulting firm.

"I would crush the whole shell and try to understand how this small marine animal released such a precious colour."

Now, after years of trial and error -- and after getting used to the foul stench -- he uses a hammer and small stone mortar to carefully break open the spiny murex shells.

What happens next is part of a secret guarded so closely that it disappeared hundreds of years ago.

A symbol of power and prestige, the celebrated purple colour was traditionally used for royal and imperial robes.

Production of the dye was among the main sources of wealth for the ancient Phoenicians, and then for the Carthaginian and Roman empires, said Ali Drine, who heads the research division of Tunisia's National Heritage Institute.

The industry was "under the control of the emperors because it brought a lot of money to the imperial coffers", he said.

In August 2007 on a Tunisian beach, Nouira found a shell releasing a purplish red colour, reminding him of something he'd learnt in history class at school.

He bought more shells from local fishermen and set out experimenting in an old outside kitchen at his father's house that he still uses as a workshop.

"Experts in dyeing, archaeology and history, as well as chemistry, helped and encouraged me, but nobody knew the technique," Nouira said.

No historical documents clearly detail the production methods for the purple pigment, Drine said.

"Maybe because the artisans did not want to divulge the secrets of their know-how, or they were afraid to because the production of purple was directly associated with the emperors, who tolerated no rivalry," he said.

The only clues for unearthing the techniques lie in archaeological sites and artefacts in the Mediterranean, particularly in Tyre in southern Lebanon, and Meninx, on the coast of Tunisia's Djerba island.

Phoenicians from Tyre set down the foundations of what would become the Carthaginian empire on the Tunisian coasts.

Also known as Tyrian purple, the pigment is still highly valued today and is produced by just a handful of people around the world.

They include a German painter and a Japanese enthusiast, each with their own secret techniques.

Among the buyers are collectors, artists and researchers.

The dye can cost $2,800 per gramme from some European traders, and prices can reach up to $4,000, Nouira said.

He said he had produced a total of several dozen grammes of the pure purple dye, which he sells internationally for more modest prices.

Nouira said that when he sought help from other dye-makers, one told him bluntly, "'it's not a cooking recipe to be passed around.'"

"That made me even more determined. It drove me to read more and redouble my efforts."

In a wooden box where he keeps his stock, ranging from indigo blue to violet, Nouira carefully guards a dye sample from 2009 -- a "dear memento of my first success".

"I improved my methods until I found the right technique and mastered it from 2013-2014," he said.

To obtain one gramme of pure purple dye, Nouira said he had to shell 100 kilogrammes of murex, a task that takes him two weekends.

He washes the marine snails and sorts them by species and size, then carefully breaks the upper part of the shells to extract the gland that, after oxidisation, produces the purple colour.

Nouira said his greatest wish was to see his work exhibited in Tunisian museums.

"Purple has great tourist potential," he added, expressing a desire to one day also conduct workshops.

But he lamented what he said was the authorities' lack of interest in the craft.

In the meantime, he too is keeping his trade secrets close, and said he hoped to pass them on to his children.

"I'm very satisfied, and I'm also proud to have revived something related to our Carthaginian ancestors."

Given its invertebrate faecal inception, its putrid stench, and its proximity to the colour of corporeal distress, it is surprising that purple emerged as a symbol of worldly might

That the colour purple should have provoked the spilling of blood is perhaps unsurprising in the bruising light of its own haemoglobin glimmer. The nearer to the shade of clotted human blood that a manufacturer of the dye could manage to condense, the dearer his product. Given its invertebrate faecal inception, its putrid stench, and its proximity to the colour of corporeal distress, it is surprising that purple should ever have emerged as a symbol of worldly might, let alone otherworldly dominion.

Michelangelo’s dramatic fresco The Last Judgment, on the walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, shows Christ in a purple robe (Credit: Wikimedia)

It was customary in Old Master depictions of the heavenly host, and of Mary and Christ himself (who is described in the Book of Mark as laden by his tormentors with purple clothes, lampooning his supposed status as ‘King of the Jews’), to transfer the raiments of royal authority to those taking charge of the hereafter. When seen through the lens of the dye’s unsavoury forging, the purple robe that seems forever to be slipping from the suspended physique of Christ in Michelangelo’s dramatic fresco The Last Judgment, which troubles the walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, can be understood as another tawdry layer of worldly trappings that the Messiah’s Second Coming overcomes. This is the image of a purified humanity coming out of its compromised shell.

That teasing tension between noxious waste and exalted authority, between what’s visceral and virtuous, arguably seeps deep into the weave of every image that relies on the colour for its narrative power. Is it significant that when Raphael, elsewhere in the Vatican, imagines his famous soirée of ancient philosophers, The School of Athens, that his fresco’s central axis should be comprised of a purple-clad Leonardo da Vinci (in the role of Plato) and, just below him, scribbling on a block of marble, a purple-shirted Michelangelo (playing Heraclitus)? That the figures are, albeit in dress-up, the artist’s two most distinguished contemporaries, only amplifies their importance and companionability. Plato (who points upwards) was of course obsessed with all things endless, elevated, and ideal, while Heraclitus was famously forlorn by his focus on the fleetingness of things. Only the conflicted colour of purple – at once exquisite and excretory – could entwine the opposing dispositions into an equilibrium of eternal tension.

Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens depicts Leonardo da Vinci (in the role of Plato) and Michelangelo (playing Heraclitus) – both in purple (Credit: Wikimedia)

In time, the arduous task of disembowelling sea snails for their secret would give way to a more salubrious synthetic process. When, in 1856, the 18-year old aspiring British chemist William Henry Perkin accidentally discovered, while attempting to find a cure for malaria, an artificial residue that could rival the sheen of Tyrian Purple, he recognised his good fortune and seized it. Eventually settling on ‘mauveine’ (so-called after the Latin term for the mallow flower, Malva, which boasts a similar shade) as the trademarked name for his profitable invention, Perkin ignited a fashion sensation. Suddenly what had been for centuries an elite hue was widely available – demystifying its use.

Francis Bacon’s 1953 Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X replaces the Pope’s red with Tyrian Purple (Credit: Alamy)

That’s not to say Tyrian Purple disappeared entirely from art or that its portrayal by painters suddenly ceased to intrigue or deepen the narratives of their work. When the Irish artist Francis Bacon resolved to reinvent in the 1950s Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X (1650) for a series of unsettling works popularly known as the ‘screaming popes’, he decided to recast the pontiff’s vestments not as scorching scarlet as his Spanish forebear had, but as pulsating purple. The result was as quietly alarming as the mute caterwaul that howls from his subject’s tortured lips.

Putting to one side the anachronism of Bacon’s vision (Pope Paul II had, five centuries earlier, declared that Tyrian Purple should be replaced by red for all official frocks), Bacon’s sizzling nudge towards violent violet is fitting, as if the Pope were undergoing the excruciating disgorgement of millions of molluscs over many millennia. Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Innocent X(1953) can be seen as purple’s silent scream into anguished oblivion – the last gasp of a gorgeously appalling colour.

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Animals produce some biological pigments which are used for the extraction of colors. These dyes always been a synonym for luxury and became highly popular due to their brilliant and permanent dying properties as compared to plant based dyes.

Here are few most popular Animal -Based dyes imparting brilliant colors to the fabric :

1. Tyrian Purple


Tyrian purple is the first in list when it comes to animal-based pigments. This dye shares an ancient history with Romans since 4th century BC . The name Tyrian refers Phoenician city, Tyre, Lebanon, a town where this dye was first produced around Bronze age .

This beautiful purple dye was first extracted by Phoenicians and thus this dye is popularly known as Phoenician red, Phoenician purple, royal purple, imperial purple, or imperial dye. The first written record of Tyrian dye is mentioned in texts from Ugarit and Hittite sources, which indicate that the production of Tyrian purple began in the 14th century BCE in the eastern Mediterranean.

It is extracted from the mucus secretion produced by snails, known as ‘Murex’ . These are sea snails in the family Muricidae, found in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Tyrian purple was considered very expensive as it was difficult to make and the color turns to be vibrant and brighter with the passage of time. It did not fade. This highly prized dye soon became a symbol of status and Roman citizenship . The production of Tyrian purple was tightly controlled by Romans and later on by succeeding Byzantine Empire.

The Phoenicians also produced royal blue dye or hyacinth purple , which was made from a closely related species of marine snail. These dyes were sources of color for fabrics as well as historical parchments.

2. Cochineal Dye

SOURCE : Cochineal Insect (Dactylopius Confusus)

Cochineal is an ancient natural dye producing shades of Red, Crimson and Pinks . History of Cochineal dye travels back to 11th and 12th century Peru and Mexico. Ancient texts suggest the presence and collection of cochineal beetles for dyes by pre-Incas.

Cochineal is a scale insect native to tropical and subtropical south America which lives on cacti , feeding on plant moisture and nutrients. The insects are collected by brushing them off the pads of prickly pear cactus. The insect produces carminic acid, which is treated to produce carmine, a dye that was used in North America in the 15th century for coloring fabrics.

The color produced from this insect source is intense and and shades of purple can be obtained using alum as a mordant . It set more firmly on woolens than on the fabrics like cotton, agave and yucca fibers.

Cochineal is still used in many products. It is commonly used in red lipsticks, and is one of the few red pigments allowed to be used in eye shadow. Further, the color additive used in Cherry Coke is also made from cochineal.

3. Kermes Dye

SOURCE : Kermes vermilio

Kermes is another animal origin crimson red dye derived from Kermes insects, native to the Mediterranean region and live on the sap of the Kermes Oak .

This red dye was popular for dying silk and wool in medieval times by Greeks and Romans. Its colorfastness made it an extremely popular dye by the 14th and 15th century and kermes scarlet red color gain the title of “by far the most esteemed, most regal” color for luxury woolen textiles in England, France , Italy and Spain.

At the Neolithic cave-burial site at Adaouste, archaeologist found the JAR OF KERMES at the northeast of Aix-en-Provence. Kermes imparts wonderful colors to especially to silk and wool. textiles dyed with kermes were described as dyed in the grain.

4. Tekhlet Dye

SOURCE : Hexaplex trunculus

This Indigo dye is popularly known as Murex trunculus, Phyllonotus trunculus , or the banded dye-murex, it is a medium-sized sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Muricidae.

This species living in the Mediterranean sea and Atlantic Coast secrets a mucus from its hypobranchial gland which is used to create an animal based Indigo dye – Tekhelet. One of the dye’s main chemical ingredients is red dibromo-indigotin, the main component of Tyrian purple.

The dye has a huge historical importance and mark its presence in Mediterranean cultures, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Jews and Greeks.

5 Lac

SOURCE : Kerriidae or lac insects

Lac is a resinous secretion of a number of species of Kerriidae or coccus laccac found in India, China, Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal and Mexico. Thousands of lac insects colonize the branches of the host trees and secrete the resinous pigment. Due to its high commercial value , LAC is widely cultivated in Asia.

Lac extract yields a warmer and soft range of colors- Crimson reds, Burgundy, Plum purples and Deep purples depending upon the mordant used. The lac dye has great colorfastness on both silk and wool. It was used in ancient India as a wood finish , skin cosmetics, wax, and dye for wool and silk. In China it is a traditional dye for leather goods .

In India, the leading producer of lac is Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, and Maharashtra. Lac coated branches are cut a nd harvested as “sticklac” . It is crushed, strained, and washed to remove any impurities. Once cleaned, It is then usually pounded into a powder, and soaked, strained and boiled.

These were some Animal-based sources that are renewable and sustainable sources of natural pigments. These are more reliable than Plant-based sources due to their wide presence and fast insects and bacterial growth. Natural dyes are biodegradable and disposing of them doesn’t cause pollution. However, using these sources as food colorants may not be suggestive due to their harmful effects on the human body when consumed. They may cause allergies and inflammation with exceptions such as carmine found in lipsticks, will not cause harm or health problems when ingested.

Other than above insects, there are also microbial and fungal pigments obtained from kicroorganisma. We will discuss it in some other post.

We will proceed further with the series and find out about Fungal based and Mineral-Based sources of dyes. Till then enjoy sustainability and stay safe.

Described by Aristotle and Pliny among other ancient writers, Tyrian purple or imperial purple was a dye extracted from shellfish along the Levant coast and favoured by emperors and kings in a trade of huge value.

At the time of the textiles’ creation, the only way people could obtain the true-purple dye, known as argaman, was by extracting it from specialized glands in the bodies of any of three species of mollusk found in the Mediterranean: the banded dye-murex (Hexaplex trunculus), the spiny dye-murex (Bolinus brandaris) and …


As well as Tyrian purple, the Phoenicians also made a purple-blue indigo dye, referred to as royal blue or hyacinth purple, which was made from a closely-related species of marine snail.

The Phoenicians established an ancillary production facility on the Iles Purpuraires at Mogador, in Morocco. [3] The gastropod harvested at this western Moroccan dye production facility was Phyllonotus trunculus also known by the older name Murex trunculus (Linnaeus, 1758)).

This second species of dye murex currently occurs on "the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa (Spain and Portugal, Morocco, and the Canary Islands" [4]

Phoenicians and Romans Created a Purple Dye Monopoly

The dye is also known as Tyrian Purple . It was first produced by the Phoenicians in what is now the Levant and they had a monopoly on the dye color for many years. It is believed that one of their purple dye factories, which dates from Biblical times, has been found near Haifa in Israel.

The Phoenicians brought the secret of how to make the dye to their colony of Carthage, in what is now Tunisia. After the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage, the Romans learned the secrets of the dye and controlled the lucrative industry.

George VI, King of England, chose the ancient purple power color for his official portrait. ( Public domain )

Ali Drin who works for the National Heritage Institute in Tunisia stated that the ‘Production of the dye was among the main sources of wealth for the ancient Phoenicians, and then for the Carthaginian and Roman empires’ reports Phys.Org. The Romans introduced private expenditure laws on key personal items to ensure that only the elite could wear purple as a way to maintain social hierarchy.

Justinian I wears Tyrian purple in San Vitale Basilica, Ravenna. ( Public domain )

Tyrian purple

A purple dye obtained from marine gastropods of the genus Murex (such as Murex brandaris L. and Purpura lapillus L.) found on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic coast of Europe and the British Isles. Murex purple, also called Tyrian purple and red whelk, was used in Greek and Roman times for dyeing togas and in the Middle Ages for decorating manuscripts. The mollusks secrete a yellowish liquid that oxidizes to a purplish red in bright sunlight. One mollusk only produces one drop of colorant so large numbers were needed to produce enough dye for an entire cloth. Hence, the dye was very expensive. When a synthetic coal tar dye of the same composition (6,6'-dibromoindigo) was developed in 1904, the natural material became obsolete.

Tyrian Purple

A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color. The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.

I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna. But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color? A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog. According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph. While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.

La Découverte de la Pourpre (Peter Paul Ruben, ca. 1636, oil sketch)

Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct. Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family. Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.

The mucous secretion of a murex: the snail s use the discharge for hunting and to protect their eggs from microbes

Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite. To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment. Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.

Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used. In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators. By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian the Great

The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13 th century. The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19 th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.

Watch the video: Tyrian Purple Dye: Ancients Used Marine Snails to Make It (July 2022).


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