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Tekhelet - Israel

Ancient textile may contain Biblical blue dye lost for 1,300 years


An extremely rare blue dye which adorned the robes of kings, priests, and Jews in ancient times, and which was lost to the world nearly 1,300 years ago, is believed to have been found on a 2,000-year-old piece of fabric found near the Dead Sea.

In accordance with a Torah commandment, the ancient biblical blue dye, known as tekhelet, was used to colour the tassels of the four-cornered garment worn by men, as well as the clothing worn by the High Priest during the days of the temple.  The Bible in the book of Numbers relates God’s charge to Moses:

Speak to the children of Israel, and bid them make fringes in the corners of their garments throughout their generations, putting upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. 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

At some point following the Roman exile of the Jews from the land of Israel, the actual identity of the source of the dye was lost and as a result the Jews have worn only plain white tassels.  Over the past century, experts have attempted to rediscover the origins of the dye, tracing it to the Murex trunculus snail.

“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.

The tiny piece of fabric was originally discovered in a cave in the 1950s at Wadi Murba’at, where Jewish fighters hid during the Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century.  As part of her doctoral dissertation at Bar Ilan University, Sukenik recently tested the colour found in the fabric and was able to determine that it was derived from the Murex trunchular, a mollusk widely believed to be the marine animal known as the  khilazon in the Talmud -- the source of the rare blue dye.

The discovery offers definitive proof of “coloured fabrics trade and strict adherence to the biblical commandment of tekhelet in ancient Israel,” said Sukenik.

One of the earliest recorded mentions of tekhelet is in the Tell-el-Amarna Tablets (1500-1300 BC), and archaeological evidence suggests that the origins of the purple and blue dye industry can be traced to Crete, where Minoan islanders were already manufacturing sea-purple by 1750 BC.

Until now, scientists and scholars had not reached a consensus on whether tekhelet was a light sky blue colour, or a darker, more purple-hued blue. The shade discovered on the piece of fabric tested by Sukenik was sky blue, which serves to resolve a debate that has been going on for decades.

 “I think this is a fascinating finding,” said Baruch Sterman, a physicist and world expert on snail dying, who is also the author of “The Rarest Blue,” a recently published book on the subject.  “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 coloured fabric may enable Jews around the world to once again follow the mitsva (Commandment) to wear a thread of tekhelet on their garment.

By April Holloway

Read more:

The Meaning of Tekhelet by Baruch Sterman

The Science of Tekhelet by Baruch Sterman

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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