Ancient Dyes Are Discovered in Southern Israel

July 3, 2017 | Daniel K. Eisenbud
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Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of fragments of ancient textiles in the Timna valley near the southern Israeli city of Eilat. Because the fragments—dating back to the 10th century BCE, the putative time of Solomon—are so well preserved, the dyes used by their manufacturers can be detected. Daniel K. Eisenbud writes:

Researchers from a joint study by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Tel Aviv University, and Bar-Ilan University say the finds provide the earliest evidence of a plant-based dye in Israel. . . . According to the IAA, the excavations, directed by Erez Ben-Yosef, recovered dozens of fragments of 3,000-year-old textiles, which were preserved due to the region’s extremely arid climatic conditions.

“The textiles date to King Solomon’s reign, in the Iron Age [11th-10th centuries BCE], and some are decorated with a red-and-blue-bands pattern,” he said. “These are the earliest examples to have been found in the country and in the Levant [the eastern Mediterranean] of the remains of plant-based dyes. . . .

“Upon analysis, the data indicated the use of two main plants: madder, whose roots provided a red dye, and indigotin, probably produced from woad, which was used as a blue dye in a long and complex process involving reduction and oxidization that lasted a number of days,” he said. . . . . The textiles recovered in Timna, he said, were colored with true dye, which is characterized by a chemical bond between dye and fiber, attesting to professional knowledge and skill in the art of dyeing during this period.

[T]he colored woolen textiles came as a surprise to the researchers, since during the Iron Age Timna was principally an important smelting and mining site for the production of copper.

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