In Living Color: Dyes and Dyeing in Ancient Israel
By Timothy S. Wilkinson
Today we see bright, vivid colors as the product of primarily synthetic processes. We are pleasantly surprised—even awed—by neon frogs and electric blue fish. For Iron Age peoples, the reverse was true. Man-made colors were consistently inferior to their natural counterparts, and the palette available to the dyer or the painter was a tiny fraction of that which God had used to adorn the landscape around them.
An interesting example of this is the invitation Jehovah extends to his wayward people at Isaiah 1:18: “’Come, now, you people, and let us set matters straight between us,’ says Jehovah. ‘Though the sins of you people should prove to be as scarlet, they will be made white just like snow; though they should be red like crimson cloth, they will become even like wool.’”
Modern readers might think that the contrasts would have been made more vivid had they used black vs. white instead of scarlet/crimson vs. white. But real blacks could not be produced by the dyes of the time—only dark greys or charcoals, and these were far from colorfast. The dyes for crimson and scarlet, though, were both rich and lasting. Removing a scarlet stain from a white cloth was an impossible task, and therefore a great illustration of the extent of God’s forgiveness.
The story behind some of the dyes and dying processes used by the Israelites are fascinating. Here are a few examples:
Yellow dye was relatively common. It could be made from a distillation from almond leaves, pomegranate rinds, safflower blossoms, or crocus flowers. Anyone who has visited India or various regions of the Middle East will remember the yellow-orange fingers of every housewife, permanently stained by her handling of turmeric.
The bark of the pomegranate tree was blended with the roots of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum) to produce a dark, charcoal grey. Sometimes the deepest versions of the purple or blue dyes described below could appear black in less-than-direct light.
Indigo was grown in Egypt (and eventually in southern Palestine) and used just as it is today. The cerulean mussel and some mollusks from the murex family were blended with other substances for deeper blues.
The simplest (and least expensive) purples were made by steeping wool cloth in grape juice overnight and, in the morning, sprinkling powdered madder root on it to “fix” the color. The more well-known purples, though—the ones frequently referred to in the Scriptures in connection with royalty—have a more interesting origin. Along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea live the Murex trunculus and the Murex brandaris, two mollusks that range from marble- to fist-sized. In their necks is a tiny gland that, when harvested, produces a single drop of creamy yellow liquid. To produce one-and-a-half grams of dye (not enough to color a large handkerchief) required the glands of roughly 12,000 mollusks! This liquid, when exposed to light and air, gradually turned to a hue somewhere between deep violet and reddish purple (depending on where on the coast the shellfish were harvested). The people of the Phoenician city of Tyre became famous for their production of a color that came to be called “Imperial purple” because it was so expensive that only royalty could afford it. In Roman times wearing a garment of this color was forbidden by Imperial decree—violators were guilty of high treason.
This color, prominently featured in both the Israelite Tabernacle and the Temple, was also expensive. A parasite that the Arabian peoples call qirmiz (which is the origin of our word “crimson”) belongs to the family coccidae. The female looks like a berry about the size of a cherry pit, so the Greeks called it “kokkos,” meaning “berry.” In late spring the female swells, filled with eggs that contain purplish-red kermesic acid. Shortly before the eggs are ready to hatch, the female attaches herself to the twigs and leaves of the kermes oak by means of her proboscis. Sharp-eyed harvesters collect the grubs, dry them, and boil them to extract the dye.
The late archaeologist W. F. Albright uncovered a dyeing and weaving center during his excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim. In each of several separate dyeing rooms were two round stone vats with narrow openings and channels around their rims, masonry basins and benches in front of or between the vats, and jars full of lime and potash for fixing the dyes.
Many dyes were made by first mixing a solution of water, potash, and lime, After several days the chosen pigment was added and the dye was poured over the cloth in earthenware pots or stone basins. After the proper delay, the yarn, cloth, or skin was washed repeatedly in clear water, squeezed out, and hung up to dry.