How the Ancient Greeks & Romans Made Beautiful Purple Dye from Snail Glands

Much has been writ­ten about the loss of col­or in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Our envi­ron­ments offered prac­ti­cal­ly every col­or known to man not so very long ago — and in cer­tain eras, grant­ed, it got to be a bit much. But now, every­thing seems to have retreat­ed to a nar­row palette of grays and browns, not to men­tion stark black and white. We should con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that this time of “col­or loss” is a kind of ascetic repen­tance after a long feast. That anal­o­gy holds on more than one lev­el: tech­nol­o­gy and indus­tri­al­iza­tion made food abun­dant and thus inex­pen­sive, and it did the very same thing with col­ors.

There was a time when col­ors did­n’t come cheap. Peo­ple had plen­ty of black, reds, and browns in their lives, but pro­duc­ing the pig­ments for hues not often seen in nature entailed going to the ends of the earth (or in the case of ultra­ma­rine blue, the bot­tom of the sea). We all know that, for a long time start­ing around the day of Julius Cae­sar, pur­ple was the col­or of roy­al­ty. The choice was­n’t an acci­dent: Cae­sar’s “Tyr­i­an pur­ple” of choice was extrav­a­gant­ly expen­sive, owing to the fact that it could be extract­ed only from the glands of a par­tic­u­lar Mediter­ranean sea snail. You can learn more about this process from the Busi­ness Insid­er video above.

“Thou­sands of snails were required to pro­duce a sin­gle ounce of pur­ple dye,” writes’s Son­ja Ander­son, quot­ing Pliny the Elder. Though well under­stood for a few decades now, the world of ancient pur­ple-dye pro­duc­tion con­tin­ues to yield sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies. “Archae­ol­o­gists were exca­vat­ing recent­ly in the Bronze Age town of Kolon­na, on the Greek island of Aegi­na, when they dis­cov­ered two Myce­naean build­ings,” Ander­son writes. “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.”

Notably, these well-pre­served 3,600-year-old ruins date from a time long before pur­ple acquired its pres­tige. “There is no indi­ca­tion in the Bronze Age that pur­ple was a sym­bol of pow­er and that pur­ple-col­ored tex­tiles were only reserved for the elite or lead­ers, as in Roman or Byzan­tine times,” says archae­ol­o­gist Lydia Berg­er, co-author of the study. And when the Byzan­tine Empire fell, the knowl­edge of Tyr­i­an pur­ple was lost with it, only to be recov­ered ear­ly in this cen­tu­ry. These days, one does hear occa­sion­al rumors of a col­or come­back, and a rich pur­ple lead­ing the charge would bring with it a cer­tain his­tor­i­cal sat­is­fac­tion. In any case, we all remem­ber one cul­tur­al roy­al in par­tic­u­lar who sure­ly would have approved.

via Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed con­tent:

Ten of the Most Expen­sive Arts & Art Sup­plies in the Worlds: Japan­ese Bon­sai Scis­sors & Cal­lig­ra­phy Brush­es, Tunisian Dye Made from Snails and More

A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Orig­i­nal Col­ors Still In It

Behold Ancient Egypt­ian, Greek & Roman Sculp­tures in Their Orig­i­nal Col­or

Dis­cov­er Harvard’s Col­lec­tion of 2,500 Pig­ments: Pre­serv­ing the World’s Rare, Won­der­ful Col­ors

YIn­Mn Blue, the First Shade of Blue Dis­cov­ered in 200 Years, Is Now Avail­able for Artists

Prince Gets an Offi­cial Pur­ple Pan­tone Col­or

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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