Piece of Ancient Fabric Revealed True Source of Biblical Blue Dye Lost for 1,300 Years
An ancient blue dye, known as tekhelet, once adorned the precious robes of kings, priests, and high-ranking Jews. But around two millennia ago, this highly-valued commodity became lost to the pages of history. That is, until a 2,000-year-old piece of fabric was found near the Dead Sea that contained traces of the ancient dye.
In the Torah, the sacred book of Judaism, it is stated that tekhelet was used to dye the tzitzit, specially knotted ritual tassels attached to the four corners of a prayer shawl, which was worn in antiquity by Israelites and still today by Orthodox Jews.
The Torah states in Numbers 15:38: "Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them, that they shall make themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall put on the corner tassel a blue-violet (Tekhelet) thread. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them.”
A tzitzit with blue dyed tassels (public domain)
Source of the dye became lost in time
The first mention of tekhelet can be traced back approximately 3,500 years, to the Tell-el-Amarna tablets found in Upper Egypt at Amarna.
However, around the time that the Romans banished the Jews from the land of Israel, just over 2,000 years ago, knowledge of the source of the valuable dye disappeared and an age-old tradition was lost. Despite their sacred text advising to dye their tassels blue, Jews were forced to wear only plain white tassels.
Searching for the source
For years, researchers in the modern day were attempting to rediscover the origins of the ancient dye. The Tell-el-Amarna tablets, as well as archaeological evidence, suggested that the origins of the purple and blue dye industry could be traced to the island of Crete, now part of Greece, where Minoans had been manufacturing the dye known as sea purple since at least 1750 BC.
But where did it come from? Finally, a breakthrough occurred. The discovery of enormous quantities of Murex shells paved the way to learning the real source of tekhelet.
“Until now, our most important discovery had been the piles and piles of Murex trunculus (hillazon snail) shells from the area, which served as a silent testimony to the presence of an ancient dyeing industry in Israel,” said Dr. Naama Sukenik, a researcher at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Murex trunculus is a medium-sized species of sea snail found on the north part of Israeli coastal plain near Tel Shikmona. The blue-colored flesh was used to create tekehelt. (CC by SA 3.0)
Ancient dyed fabric rediscovered
In the 1950s, a small piece of fabric with tiny traces of blue was discovered at Waki Murba’at, in a cave where Jewish freedom fighters hid in the 2 nd century AD during the Bar Kokhba revolt. The fabric was stored away in a box until 2014, when Dr Sukenik, then a PhD student at Bar Ilan University, undertook an analysis of the color in the fabric. The results confirmed it – the Murex truncular mollusc was the source of the rare blue dye.
Dr Sukenik stated that her finding was evidence of a “colored fabrics trade and strict adherence to the biblical commandment of tekhelet in ancient Israel.”
Wadi Murba’at textile (courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
The analysis of the fabric also revealed the exact color of tekhelet. Until the discovery, it was not known whether it was light blue or a darker, more purple-hued blue, but the finding revealed that tekhelet was sky blue.
Baruch Sterman, a physicist and world expert on snail dying, said of the finding: “I think this is a fascinating finding… Here we have evidence that in what is now Israel, in the second century, they had the technology to dye blue using murex, and there was an entire industry in Israel that had all this advanced technology.”
The discovery of the true origins of tekhelet may lead to the revival of a very ancient tradition. Jews may once again have in their hands the knowledge of how to produce the sacred dye, allowing them to wear a thread of tekhelet on their garments.
Top image: A Jewish prayer shawl adorned with ritual tassels that contain tekhelet-dyed threads.