Three Millennia Ago, an Israelite King Conquered a Phoenician Dye Factory on the Mediterranean Coast

June 26, 2023 | Melanie Lidman
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The Hebrew Bible makes frequent mention of argaman, wool dyed purple with a specific substance, as a key material for the priestly vestments, the tabernacle, and other items of high status. In ancient Rome, the same dye, imported from the Levant, was a symbol of royalty. Investigating an ancient site in the city of Haifa, Israeli archaeologists believe they have discovered an ancient factory for the pigment’s production:

The purple dye is created from a gland found in three kinds of sea snails, commonly called rock snails or murex, found along Israel’s coast. The dye likely created both the argaman (purple) and t’khelet (blue) referred to in the Hebrew Bible. The color is so strong that it can stay fixed for thousands of years, meaning dyed fibers from 3,000 years ago maintain their vibrant hue.

The dye factory is located at Tel Shiqmona on the southern end of Haifa’s coast. The settlement remains had previously confounded archaeologists: it was first settled in the Bronze Age, around 1500 BCE, but was quite small compared to other settlements at the time. It was also located far from agricultural lands and next to an area of rocky coast that was unlikely to be useful for maritime trade.

More recent excavations over the past five years . . . found evidence of Israelite settlement that led them to believe that the site was conquered by the kingdom of Israel [from the Phoenicians] around the mid-9th century BCE. Around the time the biblical King Ahab ascended the throne, the dye factory was destroyed and rebuilt. The archaeologists found Phoenician pottery from after the rebuild, showing that Phoenicians were likely still living there. They also uncovered Israelite-style fortified walls, Israelite seals, and four-room houses that were common to Israelite architecture at the time.

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