Microscopic magnification of the ancient woolen textile. (photo credit: Clara Amit/IAA)

He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer. – Exodus 35:35 (ESV)

Recently, I heard a discussion about learning a skill that has ancient origins, such as sewing. The moderator pointed out that the volume of information that can be studied seems unending because so many people have contributed to the art of it. As each step is learned, progressing forward to “perfect” our hand at it, we keep unpacking more wisdom and knowledge related to it. It seems as if we will never truly master the art with so much more to learn and new methods being developed all the time. As each piece is revealed, it builds upon the previous knowledge.

People have been creating garments of many styles and colors since ancient times. And still today, new kinds of fabrics and techniques are being developed. While we are able to synthetically make just about any color that could be dreamt up… making these same colors; bright and vibrant from natural dyes requires a different skill set.

Two recent discoveries point to different sources of blue dye, which have biblical significance. The first piece of evidence, pictured at the top of this post, is believed to date to the time of King Solomon 3,000 years ago. It was found during excavation in the Timna Valley (readers may recall a post about “Slaves Hill” and the copper smelting discoveries). This is the first piece of colored clothing found from this ancient time period. The excavation was directed by Ben-Yosef and recovered dozens of fragments.

Researchers have concluded that the red and blue bands of color were made from the use of two plants; madder (for the red) and indigotin (for the blue). The complete process to discern the types of plants used to dye this piece of clothing can be read here.

The textile fragments that were recovered were dyed with true dye. This was a lengthy processes and took skill to produce. It is also important to note that copper smelting was an important industry for Timna during the Iron Age and perhaps earlier. Dr Naama Sukenik notes that, “The findings indicate that the society at Timna, identified with the Kingdom of Edom, was hierarchical and included an upper class that had access to colorful, prestigious textiles.The context in which the textiles were found suggests that the metalworkers responsible for operating the smelting furnaces were members of this class,” Sukenik added, noting that converting stone into copper required considerable skill.” This helps to further dispute the idea that the copper mines were operated by slaves.

He was the son of a widow of the tribe of Naphtali, and his father was a man of Tyre, a worker in bronze. And he was full of wisdom, understanding, and skill for making any work in bronze. He came to King Solomon and did all his work. – 1 Kings 7:14 (ESV)

Throughout history and in the Bible, color is often mentioned with significance. In the Jewish faith, the color blue is very important in the making of a prayer shawl. Specific instructions were given as to how this was to be done. The blue threads are tied into the four corners on prayer shawls. This type of shawl was worn by Israelites and still today by Orthodox Jews.

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. – Genesis 37:3 (ESV)

In your market these traded with you in choice garments, in clothes of blue and embroidered work, and in carpets of colored material, bound with cords and made secure. – Ezekial 27:24 (ESV)

A tzitzit with blue dyed tassels. (Public Domain)

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God.” – Numbers 15:37-41 (ESV)

However, the source of what the ancient Israelites used to make blue dye had been lost. As noted by Ancient Origin, The first mention of the ancient blue dye called tekhelet can be traced back approximately 3,500 years, to the Tell el-Amarna tablets found in Upper Egypt at Amarna. However, around the time that the Romans banished the Jews from the land of Israel, nearly 2,000 years ago, knowledge of the source of the valuable dye disappeared and an age-old tradition was lost. Despite their sacred text directing them to dye their tassels blue, Jews were forced to wear only plain white tassels.

Researchers have been trying to discover the origin of the ancient dye. The second revelation involving blue dye occurred recently when the Tell el-Amarna tablets and archeological evidence led to the conclusion that the origin of the dye could be traced to the island of Crete. The Minoans were manufacturing dye, known as sea purple, since at least 1750 BC. There was a breakthrough when large quantities of Murex shells were discovered.

Dr. Naama Sukenik, a researcher at the Israel Antiquities Authority, is quoted saying “Until now, our most important discovery had been the piles and piles of Murex trunculus (hillazon snail) shells from the area, which served as a silent testimony to the presence of an ancient dyeing industry in Israel.”

In the 1950’s a discovery of a small piece of fabric was tested and results confirmed that the Murex truncular mollusc was the source of the rare blue dye. It also confirmed the exact color of the dye. This piece of fabric was found in a cave where Jewish freedom fighters hid in the 2nd century AD during the Bar Kokhba revolt. Dr. Sukenik believes that the finding was evidence of a “colored fabrics trade and strict adherence to the biblical commandment of tekhelet in ancient Israel.”

Recently there was a discovery that may finally point to the process of how the ancient blue dye was created.

Murex trunculus is a medium-sized species of sea snail found on the north part of Israeli coastal plain near Tel Shikmona. The blue-colored flesh was used to create tekhelet. (Public Domain)

Like the craft of sewing example at the start of this post… Here at Patterns of Evidence we share new discoveries with you so that you can add to your knowledge of biblical times and be more able to draw conclusions accurately. Some of these pieces may link to further evidence related to Israel and the nations around them. Keep Thinking!