A 2,000-year-old fabric unearthed at the historic site of Masada 30 years ago contains a rare, long-lost color mentioned in the Bible, according to the scientist who analyzed the remnant.
One expert called the discovery “very important, because nothing of this dye has ever been found in Israel on an actual fabric.”
Zvi Koren, an expert on ancient fabrics at the Shenkar College of Textile Technology and Fashion in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, believes that the reddish-purple dye found on the fabric is the long-lost “argaman,” one of the colors used for the priestly vestments and textile coverings for the Holy Tabernacle.
Purple dyes were also used for the robes of ancient Assyrian and Babylonian kings, Persian royalty and Roman emperors and Caesars, Korean said.
According to the Talmud, argaman, which in modern Hebrew means “purple,” was extracted from sea snails.
“Historically, we know that in King Herod’s day only the rich and powerful wore purple-dyed clothes, because the dye was so expensive,” said Koren.
“It took 10,000 snails to dye one cloak. Given the fact that this fabric was found in the royal garbage dump at Masada, at the Western Palace, it could very well have been from the robe of King Herod himself,” he added.
Koren began his high-tech analysis of the remnant at the request of the British Museum in London, which is now exhibiting fabrics excavated at Masada.
Prior to mounting the exhibit, the museum contacted Shenkar’s center for the analysis of ancient textiles, the only such facility in the Middle East.
Using a state-of-the-art technique known as liquid chromatographic instrumentation, Koren was able to determine the chemical nature of the color from a very small sample of fabric.
“For 30 years, the Masada textiles were housed at the Hebrew University, but until recently the scientific community lacked the technology to analyze them,” he said.
In the process of analyzing the ancient fabrics, he was stunned to discover what he thinks is argaman.
Koren maintains that “the analysis has decisively shown that the color on this fabric was produced by dyeing with the secretions of sea snails, as described by the Talmud.”
Most of the other Masada textiles that have been unearthed were colored with plant dyes.
In addition to his scientific research, Koren consulted historical sources.
“I looked at the Greek translation of the Bible by 70 rabbis [known as the Septuagint], dating back to the 3rd century B.C.E. By cross-referencing the Greek word for `purple,’ we found that the actual color was derived from snails,” he said.
From an archaeological standpoint, there is “nothing more personal than finding the actual garments worn by someone in antiquity,” Koren added.
From a religious perspective, the discovery could assist a small group of pious Jews who are already planning to build a Third Temple in Jerusalem.
“This research could definitely help those interested in reconstructing items that were used in the Holy Temples,” Koren, an observant Jew, said.
“It could help them prepare the same textiles worn by the Temple Priests.”