In This Ancient Workshop, Greeks Crushed Snail Glands to Make the Purple Dye Worn by Royalty

Archaeologists discovered remnants of the small factory on an island in Greece

Pottery fragments found onsite are lined in purple pigment, suggesting they were once containers for dye. Lydia Berger / PLOS ONE

On an island in Greece, researchers have discovered a 3,600-year-old workshop that once turned out a rare purple dye coveted by royalty—and made from snail glands.

Archaeologists were excavating recently in the Bronze Age town of Kolonna, on the Greek island of Aegina, when they discovered two Mycenaean buildings. As the researchers write in a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, the buildings date to the 16th century B.C.E., and the older one contained pigmented ceramics, grinding tools and heaps of broken mollusk shells: all indicative of a purple dye factory.

In this workshop, ancient Greeks produced the vibrant pigment known as Mycenaean purple—or, as the Romans called it, Tyrian purple. First manufactured by the Phoenicians in present-day Lebanon, the dye was extracted from the mucus of the Mediterranean’s carnivorous sea snails. Across the region, only the rich owned anything dyed Mycenaean purple, as the color’s production was painstaking.

The site was excavated in 2017, and the researchers recently completed their analysis. Lydia Berger / PLOS ONE

As Roman historian Pliny the Elder once wrote, thousands of snails were required to produce a single ounce of purple dye. Its creators had to crush snails’ shells, extract their tiny glands, mix them with salt water and let the concoction steep in the sun, per the study. The result was a “deep purple, lilac or dark red color,” which was used on textiles and paintings, study co-author Lydia Berger, an archaeologist at the University of Salzburg, tells Popular Science’s Laura Baisas.

The fragments of pottery the researchers found on the site were probably containers for dye. As Berger notes, the pottery’s pigments are so high-quality that they could still be extracted and used to dye clothing today. The site also contained stones used for grinding, a waste pit and piles of crushed snail shells.

snail shells
Snails were crushed at the site, evidenced by a mass of broken shells. Lydia Berger / PLOS ONE
The pigment taken from the pottery fragments could still be used to dye cloth today. Lydia Berger / PLOS ONE

Eventually, snail purple would become the color of royalty. In the first century C.E., Roman Emperor Julius Caesar named Tyrian purple his official color and inspired successive emperors to don the same hue. But back in the 1500s B.C.E., the color was just beginning to be produced.

At the time, Kolonna was a dense, fortified small town, says Berger, whose inhabitants produced and traded lots of different handcrafted products and raw materials like Mycenaean dye, which wasn’t yet exclusive. Though the dye factory is in an urban area—an oddity among dye workshops—its coastal location is ideal for purple production. As the researchers write, snails had to be caught and kept alive until their glands were harvested.

By analyzing the shells in this particular workshop, researchers concluded that just one snail species was used there: the banded dye-murex. Interestingly, it wasn’t the only animal killed at the site. As Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou writes, archaeologists also found the burnt bones of several piglets and lambs. Researchers suggest these young mammals were sacrificed in the workshop as part of a ritual, meant to somehow bless the dye’s production.

As they write in the study, the ancient site not only proves that purple dye was manufactured in cities, but also provides “new insights into the technological and possibly spiritual background of the process.”

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