New Minoan Hoard Proves Snails Were Lucrative
Archaeologists working on an uninhabited island off Crete have made a series of amazing discoveries. They have uncovered a Minoan treasure trove linked to the production of a prized purple dye in ancient times. This find is related to the Bronze Age Minoan civilization and is helping researchers to better understand this important but mysterious society.
Since 2008, Greek archaeologists have been working on the small island of Chrysi, off the south-eastern tip of Crete. They have located a site that dates back to “between 3,800 and 3,500 years ago, during the Protopalatial and Neopalatial periods of the Minoan civilization on Crete,” reports Live Science . They have unearthed a complex of buildings on the west of the island.
Clever Shellfish Farming
Archaeologists found several small buildings and fish tanks. These tanks have been hewn from blocks of stone, and they were quite close to the shoreline. It is believed that the tanks were used to farm Hexaplex trunculus a member of the Murex sea snail species. Fox News quotes Chryssa Sofianou, leader of the team who excavated the site, as saying that “we think the shellfish were cultivated.” The idea behind the tanks was to allow for a large number of the sea snails to be farmed commercially.
The excavation of the Minoan site ( Greece Ministry of Culture and Sports )
It was a much easier way to harvest the shellfish than by drawing them from the sea, which was a very labor-intensive activity. A cistern nearby was filled with seawater and this was used to regularly fill the tanks. The work of harvesting the farmed shellfish would have required a great deal of effort and many workers, and generally it was tough work.
Rare Royal Purple Dye
Fox News reports that “archaeologists think the Minoans may have been the first to make the famous dye about 4,000 years ago.” The sea snails were very valuable in the ancient world because they were used to make purple dye. The creatures produce a tiny amount of a purple substance, which they use as a defense against predators. It takes thousands of sea snails to produce enough of this to dye a single garment.
The excavation site of the Minoan showing the thousands of discarded snail shells ( Greece Ministry of Culture and Sports )
Deborah Ruscillo of Washington University in St. Louis, told Live Science “purple did not exist from any other source at the time.” It was so rare and hard to produce that it was very valuable, at least until the Middle Ages . The Minoans were the first to dominate the trade in the purple dye, but it was later monopolized by the Phoenicians.
This dye was widely used to color the garments of royalty and it became known as the ‘royal purple’. The dye was used to symbolize the power of the Roman Emperor . Ruscillo also stated that “it's thought to be the Tekhelet dye described in Hebrew scriptures as the color of the curtains of the tabernacle and the vestments of the high priest,” reports Live Science .
Minoan Treasure Trove Unearthed
Archaeologists found one large building that did not have any deposits of the shells, unlike the smaller structures. It had terraces, a flight of stairs, and there was also evidence of stoves and desks, which were unearthed. According to the Greek Culture Ministry , the absence of “activity for the production of purple from the whole building, in contrast to the other excavated dwellings in the settlement,” indicates that it was a unique place in the settlement. It seems likely that this building was used by an elite to administer the settlement and to oversee the trade in the dye.
The team of archaeologists were working on this structure, when they found the Minoan treasure in two small rooms. They came across a large number of artifacts, including a ring, bracelet and many semi-precious stones, such as ‘ lapis lazuli ’. Additionally, they unearthed a large number of beads made from a variety of precious metals, including gold, silver and bronze. They also found some beads made from glass, which was a very rare material in the Bronze Age . According to the Greek Culture Ministry , it is likely “the settlement had a flourishing economy that is not shown by the architectural remains, but by the high-quality objects found in the dwellings.”
Examples of the Minoan treasure and in particular, gold beads unearthed at the excavation site. ( Greece Ministry of Culture and Sports )
Archaeologists also found a seal, with a ship insignia that was carved from agate, a semi-precious stone, which would have been used to stamp documents. Three copper vases were also brought to light, and a huge number of bronze and tin ingots, which may have been used as a form of currency. From the uncovering of this Minoan treasure, it is clear that the elite people, who probably dominated the island, were very wealthy.
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Copper vase uncovered at the Minoan excavation site. ( Greece Ministry of Culture and Sports )
The Minoan treasure that was found would indicate that the trade in the purple dye was a lucrative one. Based on the precious items, they probably earned a great deal of revenue from this commerce. The finds support the view that Minoan civilization was built on the proceeds of long-distance trade.
There are still many mysteries about the site. One is how many people lived in the settlement, and if they were free laborers or slaves. The settlement at Chrysi is not the oldest Minoan dye production complex found in Crete. More research is expected to be conducted in the future at the site.
Top image: Left: bird’s eye view shot of the excavation site, and right: Minoan treasure / gold ring unearthed at site. Source: Greece Ministry of Culture and Sports
By Ed Whelan