C. The Archeology of the Purple

The study of the classical texts has been supplemented by archeological researches. It is now known beyond all possibility of doubt that at least the following species were anciently employed: Murex brandaris. Murex trunculus, Purpura haemastoma. The identification of these species as such has quite an interesting little history of its own.

To Guillaum Rondelet (d. 1566), professor at Montpellier, belongs the credit of having first identified the Purpura of Pliny with the species now termed Murex brandaris.1

In 1616 the Italian Fabius Columna further suggested the Murex trunculus as one of the principal species utilized in ancient purple dyeing.2 Thomas Gage, in 1637, seems to have been the first to have informed the Old World of purple dyeing in the coasts of Nicoya.3

William Cole of Bristol was led by a fortunate circumstance to discover, in 1681, that a certain shell fish, a native of the British shores, secretes in a minute quantity a colourless liquid which, when exposed to the sun, passes through a certain progression of colours settling at last into a “fair bright crimson” which is practically unalterable. Identifying that mollusc, which is Purpura lapillus, with the purple shell-fish of the Phoenician, Cole, full of glee, announced his discovery to the world in the December issue of the Philosophical Transactions.4 The learned world hailed the news with great enthusiasm, as may be gathered from the account given of it in the Acta Eruditorum.5

The importance of Cole’s discovery is that through it the Old World learned, for the first time after the total extinction of purple dyeing, of the remarkable qualities of susceptibility to light and colour progression under its action possessed by the dye secreted by certain molluscs. The determination, however, of the exact species employed by the ancients cannot, in view of the fact that the Purpura lapillus is a non-Mediterranean mollusc, be said to have been materially advanced by Cole’s labours.

In 1703, Père Plumer described several varieties of Purpura lapillus found on the coasts of the Antillian Islands of the Grenadines identifying them with the species anciently employed: 

“Cochla vera fundens Purpuram.”

Reamur next discovered in 1710 a dye-yielding species on the coast of Poitou which he described in the Mémoires de T Acad. Royale des Sciences, 1711. The Italian G. Mariti6discovering (1760-1768) on the Tyrian coasts several varieties of the Aplysia a mollusc yielding a coloured liquid identified that species with the purple shellfish of the Phoenicians. Du Hammil7in 1736 gave an account of his interesting experiments upon the dye secretion of species of Purpura found on the coast of Provence.

Thomas Gage had merely made a cursory reference to purple dyeing in Central America. A complete and scientific account was given in 1772 by the learned Spaniard, Antonis de Ulloa, based upon personal observation and study on the coast of Ecuador in the district of Santa Elena, in the year 1744.8

The year 1777 saw the appearance of the interesting researches of the Danish pastor, Hans Ström, on Purpura lapillus, chiefly remarkable for their thorough treatment of the anatomical aspect of the subject.9

In 1779 the Spaniard, P. Juan Pablo Canal y Marti published a treatise dealing with purple dyeing in Central America.10

In 1786, the Italian C.D.M. Rosa, gave the world an account of his studies of the dye furnished by Murex brandaris and Murex trunculus.11

Olivier recounted in 1804 his experiences on a voyage in the Orient, giving a description of certain varieties of Janthina picked by him on his way from Tyre to Alexandria. On account of the brilliant dye yielded by these animals, Olivier hastened to the conclusion that the genus Janthina was that employed in the Tyrian dye-houses.

Real progress was made by the discoveries of the Frenchman Boblaye and the Irishman W.R. Wilde, both working independently.

No one had hitherto thought of making a search for relics of shells in a locality known to have anciently harboured a purple factory.

An account of Boblaye’s discovery appeared in “Expédition Scientifique de Morée.” (“Scientific Expedition of Morea.”)12 Boblaye was in no way on the lookout for archeological discoveries.


M. Boblaye, part of the scientific expedition to Morea, was astonished to find at certain points, not far from the sea, considerable accumulations of a single species of Murex brandaris. He had first assumed that these deposits were due to a geological phenomenon; but a closer examination of the places and circumstances made clarified that these deposits are still placed in the vicinity of ruined establishments, among which there are some whose remains were sufficiently preserved to recognize in them the remains of old factories. M. Boblaye, faisant partie de l’expédition scientifique de Morée fut étonné de rencontrer sur certains points peu éloignés de la mer des amoncellements considérables de la seule espèce de Murex brandaris. Il avait supposé d’abord que ces dépôts étaient dues à un phénomène géologique; mais un examen plus attentif des lieux et des circonstances lui fit découvrir que ces dépôts sont toujours placés dans le voisinage d’établissements ruinés, parmi lesquels il s’en trouve dont les vestiges étaient assez conservés pour reconnaître en eux les restes d’anciennes usines à teinture.


A scientific traveller and keen observer, W.R. Wilde, exploring the shore of ancient Tyre, the home of purple dyeing par excellence, was rightly led by internal evidence to identify a certain locality as the site of an ancient purple dyeing establishment. Carefully examining a huge conglomeration of broken shells in that vicinity, which, from the manner in which they had been broken, Wilde correctly thought to represent the remains of molluscs utilized for dyeing purposes, he soon identified that enormous mass as belonging to the species Murex trunculus.13

The year 1857 is marked by the appearance of the memorable “Mémoire sur la Pourpre” (“Memory on the Purple”) by Lacaze-Duthiers embodying his epoch-making experiments on the dye secretion of Murex trunculus. Murex brandaris, Murex erinaceus. Purpura haemastoma, and Purpura lapillus. Unaware of Wilde’s discovery, Lacaze-Duthiers suggests as probable that Murex trunculus was one of the principal species made use of by the ancients for purple-dyeing. Murex brandaris having long been recognised as one of those species, Lacaze-Duthiers adds:


“The discovery that was made in Pompeii about piles of Shells of the Murex brandaris near the dyers’ shops proves that this is the species they are talking about.” “La découverte que l’un a faite à Pompéi de tas de coquilles du Murex brandaris près des boutiques des teinturiers prouve assez que c’est de cette espèce qu’ils s’agit.” 


He further suggests as “highly probable” that Purpura haemastoma played a most important role. Three net results stand out prominently in Lacaze-Duthiers’ mémoires:

The species anciently employed belong to the genera Purpura and Murex of modern zoology.

Purpura Pliny Murex Linné, buccinum Pliny Purpura Linné.

Murex brandaris was certainly, Murex trunculus and Purpura haemastoma were probably employed.

The great French naturalist significantly remarks: 


It is very likely that the species used were more numerous than the one discussed in this brief; but it would only be possible through research on sides of Tire that would give some more precise data.” “Il est très probable que les espèces employées étaient plus nombreuses que celle dont il a été question dans ce mémoire; mais ce ne serait que par des recherches sur des côtés de Tyre que l’on pourrait peut-être arriver a quelques données plus précises.”14


Through the omission on Boblaye’s part of an exact specification of the localities on the Grecian coasts where his discoveries had been made, it was left to Fr. Lenormant to rediscover those deposits of shells of Murex brandaris on the coasts of Crigo and Gythiven.15

Between 1842 and 1861 fall the important researches of Bartolomeo Bizio dealing with the chemical constitution of the secretions of Murex brandaris and Murex trunculus.

In 1864, on January 3rd., F. de Saulcy discovered in the vicinity of the ancient Sidon (Saida) a colossal mass of broken shells of Murex trunculus, the remains of molluscs used in purple-dyeing.


“Moving south to the fortress of the Middle Ages, known as the Castle of St. Louis, we began to climb a cliff of embankments, on the side of which outcrops a huge cluster of shells invariably belonging to a single species of the genus murex, the murex trunculus. This cluster has colossal dimensions of more than a hundred meters in length and six to eight meters in height, and a width that it is not possible to recognize, because the vegetal that covers it is lined with grasses and brush of all kinds. “Remotant vers la sud jusqu’au-dessus de la fortresse du moyen âge, connu sous le nom de château de Saint-Louis, nous nous mîmes à escalader une falaise de remblais, sur la flanc de laquelle affleure un amas immense de coquilles appartenant invariablement à une seule et même espèce du genre murex, le murex trunculus. Cet amas présente des dimensions colossales plus de cent mètres de longueur sur six à huit mètres de hauteur, et une largeur qu’il n’est pas possible de reconnaître, parce que le terrain végétal qui le recouvre est garni d’herbes et de brousailles de toute nature.


I quickly filled my pockets with samples of the precious shell and was able to make sure that all the individuals who make up this remarkable cluster, without exception, offer the same peculiarity. Their test was rigorously started on a grinding wheel, on the first and second turns, to allow the generator pocket to be extracted from the mollusk. This cannot be the effect of chance, and there is evidently here the trace of the industrial process, with the help of which the Sidonian dyers obtained the basis of their so famous purple reowns. “

J’emplis bien vite mes poches d’échantillons de la précieuse coquille et je pus m’assurer que tous les individus qui constituent cet amas remarquable offrent, sans exception, la même particularité. Leur test a été rigoureusement entamé d’un coup de meule, sur la première et la seconde tour de spire, pour permettre d’extraire la poche génératrice du mollusque. Ceci ne peut être l’effet du

hasard, et il y a là évidemment la trace du procédé industriel, à l’aide duquel les teinturiers sidoniens se procuraient la base de leur pourpre si renommée.”16


At a small distance from that deposit of Murex trunculus shells a French physician Gaillardot17discovered remains of Murex brandaris and of Purpura haemastoma.

Oskar Schmidt, a Strasbourg professor, found in 1867 remains of Murex brandaris and Murex trunculus on the site of a former dye-house in Aquileja.

On the site of the ancient Troy remains of Purpura haemastoma were afterwards discovered. 


“According to Schliemann, the Purpura haemastoma was also used for the same purpose in other Mediterranean localities as it resulted from the excavations made in the site of Troi.” “Le Purpura haemastoma était également employé au même usage dans d’autres localités méditerranéennes ainsi qu’il résulta des fouilles faites dans l’emplacement de Troi d’après Schliemann.”18


Professor Nowack thus inaccurately states in the Encyclopedia (art. “Purple”) that no archeological discovery has yet been made proving the employment of Purpura haemastoma in purple-dyeing.

Evidence of the use of Murex brandaris and Murex trunculus in the African factories was brought to light in 1874 through the discovery by H. de Villefosse of engravings on a column found in the vicinity of Fegonsia between Batra and el-Kantata representing the figures of the shells of these two species and bearing the inscription “Purpurorum.”19 In 1878 A. Papier exhibited before the Academy of Hippone an engraving from Gaetulia showing the figure of Purpura haemastoma (ib.).

Professor Raphael Dubois states on the authority of a certain author, Rémy Vidal:


“Murex brandaris provided ‘shiny’ or ‘Tyrian’ purple and fished mainly in Tire: Murex trunculus gave ‘amethyst’ purple,’ so called because of its purplish reflections. The latter was being prepared in Sidon. This  indicates,” remarks Professor Dubois, “that the two species of the murex did not live side by side as in Toulon.” “Murex brandaris fournissait la pourpre ‘rutilante’ ou ‘tyrienne’ et se pêchait surtout à Tyre: le Murex trunculus donnait la pourpre ‘amethyst,’ ainsi appelé à cause de ses reflets violacés. Cette dernière se préparait à Sidon. Ceci semble indiquer,” remarks Professor Dubois, “que les deux espèces du murex ne vivaient pas côte à côte comme à Toulon.”20


I have not been able to verify the source of Vidal’s assertion.

In conclusion, mention should be made of the discovery of a number of Tyrian coins bearing the figures of both Murex trunculus and Murex brandaris, thus indicating their importance for Phoenician manufacture and industry.21



  1. Lamarck, Jean Baptiste, Système des Animaux sans Vertebres. Paris (1822), v.IX, pp. 559560.
  2. Columna, Fabius, Opusculum de Purpura. Rome, 1616.
  3. Gage, T., A new survey of the West Indies, etc., London (1637), pp. 437438.
  4. Philosophical Trans., 1685, pp. 127886.
  5. Acta Eruditorum, Lipsiae (1686), p. 620.
  6. Mariti, G., Reisen durch die Insel Cyprien: 1760-1768, German translation by C.H. Hage, Altenburg (1877).
  7. Du Hammil, Memoirs de l’Academie des Sciences, Paris (1736).
  8. Ulloa, Antonis de, Noticias americanas sobre la America meridional y la septentrional oriental, Madrid (1772).
  9. Adrien, Robert, Sur une Monographie ancienne de Purpura lapillus.
  10. Canal y Marti, Juan Pablo, Memorias sobre la Purpura, Madrid ( 1779), Cf. Lacaze-Duthiers, Mem. sur la Pourpre, Paris ( 1889).
  11. Rosa, Michele, Della Porpore, Modena (1786).
  12. “Expedition Scientifique de Morte,” Annales de l’Academie des Sciences, Section de Sciences Physiques, v.III (1902), p. 190.
  13. Wilde, Sir William Robert, Narrative of a Voyage … along the Shores of the Mediterranean, Dublin (1840), 2 vos. v.II, pp. 148-151;468-488.
  14. Lacaze-Duthiers, ibid., p. 77.
  15. Saulcy, Louis Felicien de, Voyage en Terre Sainte, Paris (1865), p. 283.
  16. Idem., p. 284.
  17. Gaillardot, Globus, 26 (1874), 237-238.
  18. Dubois, Raphael, Recherches sur le Pourpre, Paris (1909), p. 518.
  19. Papier, A., Bulletin de l’Academie d’Hippone, No. 14, p. 378.
  20. Dubois, R., ibid.
  21. Schmidt, W.A., ibid., p. 108.