of the most unlikely “marriages” ever arranged is the one between
the Chinese silk moth, Bombyx mori, and Mediterranean sea snails
of the murex family. This snail produces a pigment (coloring matter)
that, when brought together with silk, led to the world’s longest-lasting
(SWITZERLAND) / ÉGLISE DE VALÉRE / ABEGG-STIFTUNG, RIGGISBERG
the griffens, mythical creatures with the head of an eagle on the body
of a lion? This fragment from an 11th-century Byzantine robe shows them
embroidered on a delicate silk woven of murex-dyed threads. The symbolic
power of murex purple reached its apogee in the eastern Roman empire
Written by Philippa Scott
first gained fame as the basic ingredient in “Tyrian purple,” a
dye named for the city of Tyre, located in what is today Lebanon. More
than 3,000 years ago, Tyre was the center from which the seafaring Phoenicians
controlled a trade in luxurious murex-dyed silks. Centuries later, the
dye was known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple” because
Roman and Byzantine emperors decreed that only members of the imperial
family could wear the color.
search for long-lasting, brilliant textile dyes is an ancient one. Early
dyers experimented with plants, colored earths, stones with metallic
oxides, insects, blood, seaweeds and shellfish. Shell mounds, pits full
of shells, and stretches of seashore made up of millions of crushed shells
are continually being discovered, forcing archeologists and historians
to reassess dates and boundaries for possible murex industries. Historians
once believed that the story of murex purple dyes began around 3000
BC with the Minoan civilization of Crete. The Phoenicians then advanced
the process. Recent finds, however, suggest that the use of shellfish
dyes developed in what is today Qatar, on the Arabian Gulf, at the same
time that it did in the Mediterranean and the Americas.
|ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM, HERAKLION / ART RESOURCE (DETAIL)
fresco of a Minoan bull-leaper, vibrantly colored by an artist using
murex dye, is around 3500 years old.
at Minoan sites have uncovered houses decorated with frescoes that used
murex purple as paint and earthen floors that contained crushed murex
shells. The shells also appeared as a design motif on pottery and on
carved gemstones. The fresco scenes tell us that the Minoans wove fine
wool cloth that was dyed different colors and that had distinct patterns.
The extensive Minoan trading network worked on a barter system, and
cloth was one of the most important trade items. A key trading partner
was Egypt, whose people had more than 70 formulae for dyeing wool, most
of which involved purple.
the 15th century BC or earlier, murex dyeing was also carried on at
Ugarit, a port city on the north coast of Syria. Excavated finds here
include lots of crushed shells and part of a pot still stained with
purple. Surviving texts describe a thriving trade in purple wool and
it was the Phoenicians who were destined to be deeply linked with murex
purple dye. The name “Phoenician” is derived from the Greek phoinix, meaning “purple-red.” Murex comes to us from Latin, derived
from the Greek muax, or “purple fish.” The sea meant trade,
and by the eighth century BC, the Phoenicians were established as traders,
craftsmen, daring seafarers and wealthy businessmen.
the supply end, the “marriage” of silk and murex occurred relatively
early. Strands of Chinese silk have been identified in the hair of an
Egyptian mummy dating to 1000 BC. This was long before an established
trade network existed. The Chinese, who kept close account of all silk
production outside their borders, recorded that Syria was a silk producer
by the fifth century of our era.
In Greek mythology, the hero Heracles
was walking along the beach in Tyre when his dog spied a murex shell.
It took a chomp and found itself with a purple snout. Recognizing the
potential of murex as a dye and as a trade item, Heracles passed the
information along to the Phoenicians.
Murex snails produce most of their
secretions in early spring, the season when Sirius, “the Dog Star,”
is high in the Northern Hemisphere’s sky. Thus, the legend of Heracles
and his dog may be a folktale reminding people of this seasonal activity.
Note: The Phoenicians credited
their god Melcarth, who was similar to Heracles, with the discovery.
commercial success and appeal of murex was based on solid science. Silk,
which is as strong as steel when measured weight for weight, is also
highly absorbent. As a result, it is easier to dye than any other fiber
and requires less dye to achieve deeper colors. Depending on the dye
mixture and the length of time in the dye, the colors ranged from ultramarine
blues and purples to gentle lilacs, mauves and pinks. The Phoenicians
justified the high prices they demanded for murex because so little
pigment was obtained from each shellfish. (See sidebar “How Murex Works.”)
|ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM, OXFORD / BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY
Minoan earthenware jar, dated between 1450 and 1400 BC, depicts an octopus
and semi-abstract murex trunculus shells.
Alexander the Great, the ruler of Greece and much of what is now the
Middle East, captured Susa (in today’s Iran) in 331 BC, his troops
found many purple robes in the royal treasury. At first the Greeks thought
the colored robes ostentatious, or gaudy, but they soon learned the
dye process. Purple dye works have been excavated in Corinth, Greece,
and murex shells were depicted on some Greek coins.
the time the Roman leader Julius Caesar returned to Rome from Egypt
in the mid-first century BC, the number of purple stripes or emblems
on any Roman male’s outer garment was an indication of his rank, authority
and prestige. The Roman emperor Nero, who had a habit of taking things
to extremes, wore all-purple robes and issued a decree declaring death
the punishment for anyone who dared wear the color. Now that is taking
it was in the eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium that the murex purple
fashion reached its all-time high. When Emperor Constantine established
his new city, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), in 330 of our era,
the Byzantines embraced purple. Ancient Phoenicia and Syria became Byzantine
territories. Syrian merchants were granted special privileges because
they supplied the imperial weavers with purple-dyed silk. The Byzantine
silk industry was strictly regulated, and those who broke the laws regulating
the sale, production and wearing of purple were severely punished. Throughout
the Mediterranean world, until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, purple
meant glamour, royalty, aristocracy, wealth and power.
have attributed the collapse of murex purple to overfishing and to the
seventh-century Arab conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean. But most
scholars blame the Turks. Historian Stephen Runciman, in his Fall
of Constantinople, wrote that two great secrets were lost when Constantinople
fell: the military formula for making “Greek
fire” and the dyeing techniques of Tyrian purple.
factors also led to the death of murex, including the sacking and looting
of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1202. As always in conquest,
skilled craftsmen were part of the booty, and it was around that time
that the Italian silk industry began to flourish. It is also true that
for the Turks and the Arabs, purple did not carry the same meaning as
it had for the Byzantines. Muslims saw green and red as the colors of
life and royalty. Ottoman superstitions held black and purple to be
unlucky colors. However, the Ottoman Turks continued to manufacture
Byzantine-style silks for the Orthodox Church in Russia.
|G. MASPERO, HISTORY OF EGYPT, VOL. IV (LONDON: THE GROLIER SOCIETY, 1903)
snail shells are of interest not only to collectors, but also to historians,
as shown in this etching from an early 20th-century history book about
1467, a decree issued by the pope in Rome stated that the murex purple,
previously used on robes worn by cardinals (high-ranking clergymen),
should be replaced by scarlet, a color used by Europe’s kings. This
shift lowered revenues from the Ottoman murex trade. And another
blow to the murex industry was just about to fall.
European discovery of the Americas in the late 15th century introduced
Europe to cochineal, a crimson dye obtained from the insect of the same
name. It was less expensive to produce than murex and dyers began mixing
it with indigo, a blue dye obtained from plants, to obtain shades formerly
obtained from shellfish.
in 1856, an 18-year-old English chemistry student named William Henry
Perkin accidentally fabricated the dye mauveine. He called the synthetic
coloring “Tyrian purple” because he thought, mistakenly, that he
had rediscovered the dye of the ancients. When Queen Victoria chose
mauve for her Jubilee dress in 1887, she was perhaps the first monarch
ever to wear silk that had been dyed to that shade without using either
the murex or cochineal.
being a fickle game, the murex market that had been so stable for thousands
of years finally faded. The marriage was over. The silkworm had spurned
the shellfish, first for an insect, and finally for a chemist.
The mucus-like secretions of all
types of murex are either colorless or a faint yellow. Exposure to sunlight
and air causes the rapid oxidization that turns the secretions into
a purple pigment. If the pigment is immediately rubbed onto fabric (or
a dog’s muzzle, as in the Greek myth), it will stain. But this method
was not practical for Phoenician commercial purposes because each shellfish
produces very little pigment.
Pigment is a coloring agent. To
become a dye that will attach itself permanently to fibers, it needs
to be processed. Murex is processed in dyeing vats, in a solution usually
consisting of saltwater, wood ash, fermented urine or lime-water. The
salt stops the shellfish’s flesh from rotting, just as salt-curing
preserves meat. No doubt dyers had their own formulae, each with varying
quantities, reduction times and so on.
Once the dye was made, it could
be used to color cloth or unwoven yarn. Or it could be dried and made
into a powder, which could be stored or transported and later made into
liquid again. After the cloth or yarn had been dyed, its color could
be brightened by rinsing the fabric in diluted vinegar.
How many sea snails were required
for dyeing? Huge numbers have been quoted and, indeed, the dyeing vats
used in ancient Qatar had a capacity of more than 600 liters (160 gallons).
But an experiment in 2001 found that good color could be obtained using
just three snails on one gram (1/30 oz) of woolen fleece. Darker hues
and a more uniform color could be obtained by using a more concentrated
dye solution and less wool. The minimum recipe to produce uniform purple
color was seven snails and 70 milliliters (2 1/3 oz) alkaline solution.
Based on these findings, researchers
calculated that dyeing a robe, cloak, mantle, toga or other garment
that weighed only a kilogram (2.2 lb) to a deep shade would require
no fewer than 10,000 snails!
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London-based free-lance writer Philippa Scott is a textile historian and author of several books, including The Book of Silk (2001, Thames & Hudson).