A joint research by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, and Bar-Ilan University presents a glimpse into the wardrobe of King David and King Solomon!
While examining the colored textiles from the Timna Valley - an ancient copper production district in southern Israel - the researchers were surprised to find remnants of woven fabric, a tassel, and fibers of wool dyed with royal purple. Direct radiocarbon dating confirms that the finds date from approximately 1000 BCE, corresponding to the biblical monarchies of David and Solomon in Jerusalem. The dye, which is produced from species of mollusk found in the Mediterranean, over 300 km from Timna, is often mentioned in the Bible and appears in various Jewish and Christian contexts -
“King Solomon made himself a chariot of the wood of Lebanon. He made the pillars thereof of silver, the bottom thereof gold, the covering of it of purple, the midst thereof being paved with love.” (Canticles 3:9–10)
This is the first time that purple-dyed textiles of the Iron Age have been found in Israel, or indeed throughout the Levant. “This is a very exciting and important discovery,” explains Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority. “In antiquity, purple attire was associated with the nobility, with priests, and of course with royalty. The gorgeous shade of the purple, the fact that it does not fade, and the difficulty in producing the dye, which is found in minute quantities in the body of mollusks, all made it the most highly valued of the dyes, which often cost more than gold. Until the current discovery, we had only encountered mollusk-shell waste and potsherds with patches of dye, which provided evidence of the purple industry in the Iron Age. Now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of the dyed fabrics themselves, preserved for some 3000 years”.
The dye was identified at Bar Ilan University’s laboratories with an advanced analytical tool (HPLC) that indicated the presence of unique dye molecules, originating only in certain species of mollusk. According to Dr. Naama Sukenik, most of the colored textiles found at Timna, and in archaeological research in general, were dyed using various plant-based dyes that were readily available and easier to dye with. The use of animal-based dyes is regarded as much more prestigious and served as an important indicator for the wearer’s high economic and social status.
Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef from Tel Aviv University’s Archaeology Department shares that as a result of the region’s extremely dry climate, the team is also able to recover organic materials such as textile, cords and leather from the Iron Age, from the time of David and Solomon, providing a unique glimpse into life in biblical times. "If we excavated for another hundred years in Jerusalem, we would not discover textiles from 3000 years ago. The state of preservation at Timna is exceptional and it is paralleled only by that at much later sites such as Masada and the Judean Desert Caves. 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. Copper smelting required advanced metallurgical understanding that was a guarded secret, and those who held this knowledge were the ‘Hi-Tech’ experts of the time." He says.
Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef identifies the copper-production center at Timna as part of the biblical kingdom of Edom, which bordered the kingdom of Israel to the south. According to him, the dramatic finds should revolutionize our concepts of nomadic societies in the Iron Age.“ The new finds reinforce our assumption that there was an elite at Timna, attesting to a stratified society. In addition, since the mollusks are indigenous to the Mediterranean, this society obviously maintained trade relations with other peoples who lived on the coastal plain. However, we do not have evidence of any permanent settlements in the Edomite territory. The Edomite Kingdom was a kingdom of nomads"
“It is wrong to assume that if no grand buildings and fortresses have been found, then biblical descriptions of the United Kingdom in Jerusalem must be literary fiction. Our new research at Timna has showed us that even without such buildings, there were kings in our region who ruled over complex societies, formed alliances and trade relations, and waged war on each other. The wealth of a nomadic society was not measured in palaces and monuments made of stone, but in things that were no less valued in the ancient world – such as the copper produced at Timna and the purple dye that was traded with its copper smelters.” he adds.
Prof. Zohar Amar traveled to Italy where he cracked thousands of mollusks (which the Italians eat) and produced raw material from their dye glands that was used in hundreds of attempts to reconstruct ancient dyeing. “The practical work took us back thousands of years,” says Prof. Amar, “and it has allowed us to better understand obscure historical sources associated with the precious colors of azure and purple.”
Photo credit: Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Hai Ashkenazi, courtesy of the Central Timna Valley Project