Archeological findings uncovered in the 1960s and 1970s have recently revealed a wonderful secret: the first biblical-period facility for the production of prestigious purple-dyed textiles has been uncovered at Tel Shikmona, near Haifa.
“Until now, there has not been any meaningful direct archeological evidence of workshops for the production of purple-colored textiles from the Iron Age – the biblical period – not even in Tyre and Sidon, which were the main Phoenician centers for the manufacture of purple dye,” explained Prof. Ayelet Gilboa and PhD candidate Golan Shalvi from the University of Haifa, who are studying the finds that have been guarded in various storerooms in Haifa for the last half century.
“If we have identified our findings correctly, Tel Shikmona on the Carmel Coast has just become one of the most unique archeological sites in the region,” they said.
Tel Shikmona is situated on a small coastal promontory on the southern outskirts of Haifa. The site is known mainly for its surrounding Byzantine settlement, including splendid mosaics. The Iron Age settlement dates back to the 11th to 6th centuries BCE, corresponding in biblical terms to the period of the judges, the United Monarchy (Saul, David, and Solomon), the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the Assyrian/Babylonian epoch.
It occupies just a little more than one acre, out of the 25 acre site of the Byzantine city at its peak. A section of the tell was excavated thoroughly between 1963-1977 by Dr. Yosef Elgavis on behalf of the Haifa Museum. The site was known to have yielded rich material findings; for various reasons, however, these have never been published in a comprehensive manner.
The fact that the totality of the finds has never been thoroughly examined, spread an aura of mystery over the small biblical settlement. Archeologists could not entirely understand why the settlement was established on the small promontory, since the rocky coastline in this area would not have allowed boats to land safely. Extensive agricultural land is not available around Shikmona, so that agriculture too could not have been the purpose of this settlement. The site does not even lie on any major thoroughfare
Now that Gilboa and Shalvi have been granted access to Dr. Elgavish’s finds, the secret of Shikmona may at last begin to reveal itself. The two researchers explain that two phenomena are immediately apparent from the hundreds of pottery items and shards waiting on the shelves of the archives: First, that the wealth of findings is associated with the Phoenician culture, including an unusual number of vessels imported from overseas. Thus, for example, Shikmona is home to the largest number of Cypriot “Black-on-Red ware” ever found outside the island.
The second phenomenon is even more amazing: the largest collection of ceramic vats found anywhere in the world from the first millennium BCE that still preserve purple coloring of various shades. Some of these have already been analyzed in the past by Nira Karmon and Prof. Ehud Spanier from the University of Haifa, which indeed revealed that the pigments absorbed in clay were genuine sea snails pigments; the scope of the phenomenon, however, has not been realized then.
Currently, a new chemical examination of dozens of such vats is being undertaken by Dr. Naama Sukenik, curator of organic materials in the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with a team of researchers from Bar Ilan University – Dr. David Ilouz, Dr. Alexander Vervack, and Prof. Zohar Amar. It proved that on all the items the stains are indeed true purple coloring extracted from marine snails.
“It is very rare to find shards from this period featuring purple color. Such items have been found in other sites along Israel’s northern coast, such as Dor and Akko, but in small numbers. Yet at Shikmona there are almost 30 vessels of this type. This is very unusual,” the researchers emphasized. In addition to the production of the dye, dozens of spindle whorls and loom weights were also found, testifying to the manufacture of wool and textiles that were dyed on site.
In the past, because of the biblical record, it was assumed that Shikmona and the entire Carmel region were part of the United Kingdom and then the Kingdom of Israel, till its destruction by the Assyrians. But based on the findings examined, the researchers propose to associate the site with the Phoenician world.
The most prestigious clothes in this era were dyed with the famous purple (Hebrew: argaman and techelet), produced from the glands of maritime snails of the Murex snail family. Since thousands of snails were needed in order to produce a single kilogram of dye, wearing purple clothes became the privilege of nobility and royalty. In many kingdoms, ordinary citizens were forbidden to wear such clothes. The secret process for the manufacture and dyeing of purple was guarded jealously, and even today the ancient techniques are not fully understood.
Thanks to the latest insights, the researchers can now cast new light on the importance of Shikmona. This small isolated site was not a village or a settlement at all, but rather a fortified factory for the production of purple dye and the dyeing of textiles and wool. Its location on a rocky coast with no convenient anchorage now becomes logical: such an environment would provide the ideal habitat for the murex snails, which could be harvested in their tens of thousands. The conspicuous Phoenician material culture revealed at the site also makes sense now: the residents (or rather employees) had an affinity to the cultural and informational world of the Phoenicians, who held the secrets of the manufacture of purple dye. Purple-dyed cloth formed the backbone of trading networks, explaining the presence at the site of the abundant Cypriot pottery that was transferred through these contacts.
“To date, no center for the production of purple has been found in Iron Age Phoenicia,” the researchers concluded. “We know that there were production sites in Tyre and Sidon and other sites in Lebanon, and thousands of Murex shells have been found there, but it seems that most of them are from the Classical periods and there is still no evidence of the production sites themselves and no direct evidence of the dye. Our identification of the character and function of Shikmona makes it the first site found from this period, and certainly one of the most important ones. Rather than being considered a region of secondary importance in this period, the Carmel Coast can now gain its rightful place as one of the most important production areas of the dye in ancient times in general, and during the biblical period in particular.”
The Shikmona project is run under the auspices of the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, with the support of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the National Maritime Museum in Haifa. Recently excavations at the site were renewed by Drs. Michael Eisenberg and Shai Bar from the Zinman Institute. Some of the findings are permanently displayed in the National Maritime Museum in Haifa.