A new study at the University of Haifa shows that one of the kings of the House of Omri (886-835 BCE) took over a small Phoenician village that produced purple dye and turned it into a fortified factory for extensive production of the precious dye on an industrial scale. The factory, which since then remained under the control of the Kingdom of Israel, is the only one found to date from this period in the entire Mediterranean basin.
The study reveals the unique and complex history of the biblical settlement of Tel Shiqmona, including the fact that it provides fascinating information about the thriving Kingdom of Israel and its extensive conquests to the northwest between the mid-ninth and mid-eighth centuries BCE.
The factory produced the prestigious and rare dye for kingdoms around the region, and its products were probably also used in the weaving of the parochet, the sacred curtain in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple.
“Under Israelite control, the factory at Tel Shiqmona supplied purple products, in all likelihood mainly purple-dyed fibers, to Cyprus and Lebanon, as well as to the sociopolitical elites and temples in the cities of the Philistines, Judah, and of course to high society in the Kingdom of Israel,” explain archaeologists Prof. Ayelet Gilboa and Dr. Golan Shalev of the University of Haifa, adding: “Since production at Shiqmona was most extensive and the site was the nearest production site to Jerusalem (and probably the only factory of its kind in that period), it is very likely that it also provided the prestigious purple dye for the Temple.”
The word “Argaman” (scarlet) appears 39 times in the Bible, including: “As for the tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, scarlet, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them.” (Ex. 26:1)
The dye was made from the body fluid of scarlet snails. The Canaanites produced the crimson from two snails: red-mouthed scarlet (Thais Haemastoma) and single-spiked scarlet in which the main colorant is dibromo-indigotin, a molecule of indigo with the addition of two bromine atoms.
Tel Shiqmona is a small hill on the western coast of modern-day Haifa, on a small cape between Mt. Carmel and the sea. It has always been a source of mystery to archeologists. The occupation of the hilltop started in the Bronze Age (the Canaanite period, fifteenth to thirteenth centuries BCE) and then resumed in the Iron Age (the eleventh to sixth centuries BCE) – a period that coincides with the biblical Judges, the United Kingdom, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and on to the devastations, first of the Kingdom of Israel and later of the Kingdom of Judah.
Throughout these periods, Tel Shiqmona was a very small site of no more than 1.2 acres, in contrast to the surrounding lower Byzantine town, which extends over 25 acres. The site has no agricultural hinterland, and the coast nearby is rocky and unsafe for mooring and sailing, so it was also unsuitable for maritime commerce.
Five years ago, Prof. Gilboa and Dr. Shalev published a study that marked a breakthrough in the understanding of the ancient settlement. Based on a preliminary examination of finds from excavations conducted by Dr. Yosef Elgavish in the 1960s and 1970s, including numerous ceramic vats stained with purple dye, as well as large quantities of Phoenician pottery, they argued that the site served as a Phoenician factory for the production of purple dye, a rare and prestigious product in the period.
Indeed, some of the finds, and part of the architecture clustered with the material culture of the Kingdom of Israel in the relevant period, particularly the casemate wall and the so-called “three-room houses,” but the assumption was that the production of purple dye was a Phoenician secret and that most of the findings were consistent with the Phoenician culture. Accordingly, the researchers concluded at the time that the site should be considered part of the Phoenician sphere.
However, after several years of intensive research into Dr. Elgavish’s findings, and after recently completing a new excavation of their own in a small section of the hilltop, Prof. Gilboa and Dr. Shalvi now present the complete historical reconstruction of the site in the relevant periods in the peer-review publication Taylor & Francis (Between Israel and Phoenicia: The Iron IIA–B Fortified Purple-dye Production Centre at Tel Shiqmona).
They suggest that around the mid-9th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel seized control of the Phoenician production site. Under Israelite rule, Shiqmona became one of the most important production sites in the Mediterranean basin. Thus, the story of the hilltop adds a strong purple tint to the prosperous days of the Kingdom of Israel between the mid-ninth and mid-eighth centuries BCE – the days of the dynasties of Omri, Ahab, and Jehu.
According to Dr. Shalvi, the findings as a whole illustrate a more complex historical picture than previously reconstructed. In the early Iron Age, in the eleventh century BCE, local Phoenicians established a small site for the production of purple dye. In this period, the material culture at Shiqmona is defined as exclusively Phoenician and the site produces local purple dye on a limited scale.
At some point in the middle of the ninth century BCE, around the time that Ahab ascended the throne in the Kingdom of Israel, the factory was abandoned, and possibly destroyed. A new site was built on its ruins, including a casemate fortification wall in a style that is characteristic of many fortified settlements in the Kingdom of Israel in this period. The ceramics, including a large number of vessels of daily use, as well other finds such as seals, now begin to show Israelite characteristics alongside the Phoenician ones. They also suggest that the production of purple dye intensified considerably during this period. The new insights offer an understanding of the unique and fascinating historical story of this site: from a small Phoenician village producing purple dye to a fortified and well-planned factory, under Israelite control, but where Phoenicians continued to serve as expert craftsmen responsible for the acquisition of the marine shells and the production the dye.
“The story of the biblical site of Shiqmona proves to be far more complex and fascinating than we originally assumed,” say the researchers. “This is the most important factory for the production of purple dye from this period that has been found to date; the scope of production was several times larger than that of any other known site. Moreover, the site tells the story of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel in the ninth and eighth centuries BCE from an unusual angle – that of the kingdom’s economic interests, its expansion to the west, and its complex relations with the Phoenicians. This period was dominated by the military and political might of the Kingdom of Israel, and the kingdom’s conquest and control of Shiqmona, with its production of purple dye, formed part of the economic foundation for this power.”.
The study of Tel Shiqmona is being undertaken under the auspices of the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, supported by a cooperative endeavor of the Office of the President of the University of Haifa, and the Municipality of Haifa, the Shelby White and Leon Levy Program for Archeological Publications at Harvard University, the Israel Science Foundation, the Hecht Foundation in Haifa, and the National Maritime Museum.
The excavation team includes researchers, students, and volunteers: Sonia Pinsky, Eddi Avrahami, Sandy Katz, Moshe Diengott, Marva Agnon, Julie Mendelsohn, Dr. Naama Sukenik, Dr. Paula Waiman-Barak, Dr. Ehud Galili, Prof. Dorit Sivan, and Harel Shochat.
Following this renewed study, a new excavation was undertaken at Tel Shiqmona. It has now been completed and several entities are now working jointly to conserve and develop the site, to make it accessible to the public: The Nature and Parks Authority, the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, the Haifa Municipality, the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, and the Israel Antiquities Authority.