Emperor's new robes

3,000-year-old fashion could be evidence of Biblical truth

The Iron Age #OOTD.

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Scientists may have discovered physical evidence of King Solomon entwined in 3,000-year-old strands of purple wool.

Using radiocarbon dating and a special chemical analysis technique, a team of researchers from Israel has identified three textile samples dating to approximately 1000 BCE from the Timna Valley region of Israel. The fibers were dyed "true purple," using special salt-water mollusks found in the Mediterranean.

This shade of purple, both time and labor-intensive to create, would have likely been worn only by social and religious elites — including Biblical kings.

Why it matters — While these fibers can't necessarily be traced back to King Solomon personally, the researchers report that it is exciting evidence of a social hierarchy within the valley's nomadic society and evidence of how certain laborers, like iron smelters, may have been higher up the socioeconomic ladder than we might assume.

The research was published Thursday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Here's the background — In many ways, the search for ancient, pre-Roman purple textiles has been one of archaeology's white whales.

Previous archaeological expeditions have found evidence of this rare kind of textile via collections of hollowed-out mollusk shells, or through purple-stained fingerprints left on pottery. But this new finding represents the first time a pre-Roman textile sample dyed with this color found in the region. And the colors are just as breathtaking as they were thousands of years ago.

Wool fibers dyed with Royal Purple,~1000 BCE, Timna Valley, Israel.Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The discovery came during an expedition that set out in 2013 to explore an iron-smelting cave called 'Slaves' Hill' — although the researchers point out this may be a misnomer because the smelters were actually highly respected tradesmen, and considered the tech entrepreneurs of their time.

Among remnants of slag, a byproduct of the smelting process, researchers pulled out three pristine fabric samples dyed true purple — or what we might think of as royal purple.

Naama Sukenik is the study's first author and curator of organic finds at the Israel Antiquities Authority. She says in a press statement that these are the first textile samples that can be traced back to the time of historic biblical figures from the region.

"This is a very exciting and important discovery," Sukenik said.

"This is the first piece of textile ever found from the time of David and Solomon that is dyed with the prestigious purple dye... Now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of the dyed fabrics themselves, preserved for some 3000 years."

Wool textile fragment decorated by threads dyed with Royal Purple, ~1000 BCE, Timna Valley, IsraelDafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The researchers explain the environmental conditions in Timna were especially fortuitous in preserving these samples from natural decomposition.

But to ensure these textiles were actually made using dye made from mollusks, and not just a similarly colored chemical process, they set out to chemically analyze the samples for clues.

What they did — One of the first ways the researchers verified their findings was through radiocarbon dating, which enabled them to confirm the age of the remains among which the samples were found. This is a method that uses the half-life carbon isotopes to determine how long they've been decaying — which translated into how long it's been since they were originally created.

Using this method, the authors report the fibers can be "tightly dated by radiocarbon to the late 11th – early 10th centuries BCE," or the early Iron Age. This puts the samples right in the time of some of the region's most historic kings.

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Next, the researchers used a process called High-Pressure Liquid Chromatography to take a closer look at the chemical structure of the dye and compare it with that of mollusks.

Shells of the three species of murex snails used for true purple dye: left to right: T. haemastoma, M. trunculus and M. brandaris.Shahar Cohen / PLOS ONE

Of three popular mollusk species used to make true purple dye, the researchers were able to directly identify two variants in their textile samples.

To better imagine how dye from these mollusks would have been mixed to form a variety of colors — ranging from light reddish purple to deep indigoes — the researchers even traveled to Italy, where they got first-hand experience cracking open these mollusks (which Italians eat) and recreating the dying process themselves.

"The practical work took us back thousands of years," Zohar Amar, a co-author on the study and professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan University, said in a statement.

"It has allowed us to better understand obscure historical sources associated with the precious colors of azure and purple."

What's next — While the discovery is a huge piece of this historical puzzle, there still remain many unknowns about what life was like in this region 3,000 years ago.

However, the researchers write that these textiles provide an important starting place to dig even deeper into these ancient social structures and explore how such fabrics were traded and who was deemed worthy enough to wear them.

It is also evidence that even though remnants of palaces and fortresses may still be missing from this biblical royalty, the United Monarchy in Jerusalem is not necessarily just "literary fiction."

Abstract: In the context of a broad study aimed at examining dyeing technologies in the Timna textiles collection, three samples of prestigious fibers dyed with murex sea snail were identified. Our identification is based on the presence of 6-monobromoindigotin and 6,6 dibromoindigotin components (detected using HPLC analysis), which is considered unequivocal evidence for the use of murex-derived purple dyestuff. Furthermore, by comparing the analytical results with those obtained in a series of controlled dyeing experiments we were able to shed more light on the specific species used in the dyeing process and glean insights into the ancient dyeing technology. The samples originated from excavations at the extensive Iron Age copper smelting site of “Slaves’ Hill” (Site 34), which is tightly dated by radiocarbon to the late 11th – early 10th centuries BCE. While evidence for the important role of purple dyes in the ancient Mediterranean goes back to the Middle Bronze Age (early 2nd millennium BCE), finds of dyed textiles are extremely rare, and those from Timna are the oldest currently known in the Southern Levant. In conjunction with other observations of the very high quality of the Timna textiles, this provides an exceptional opportunity to address questions related to social stratification and organization of the nomadic society operating the mines (early Edom), the “fashion” of elite in the region during the early Iron Age, trade connections, technological capabilities, and more.
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