If you are one of those people who think that whatever the ancients could do, we can do better then this article will make you think again. The opening lines of Zaria Gorvett’s article are: “For millennia, Tyrian purple was the most valuable colour on the planet. Then the recipe to make it was lost.” The reason no one knows how to make this colour is because the ancients did not write down the process of making this remarkable colour and modern science has not able to replicate the colour.
So what was Tyrian Purple and why was it such a big deal in the ancient world? “Tyrian purple was paraded by the most privileged in society for millennia – a symbol of strength, sovereignty and money. Ancient authors are particular about the precise hue that was worthy of the name: a deep reddish-purple, like that of coagulated blood, tinged with black. Pliny the Elder described it as having a “shining appearance when held up to the light”.
With its uniquely intense colour and resistance to fading, Tyrian purple was adored by ancient civilisations across Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. It was so central to the success of the Phoenicians – it was named after their city-state Tyre, and they became known as the “purple people”. The shade could be found on everything from cloaks to sails, paintings, furniture, plaster, wall paintings, jewellery and even burial shrouds…
This precious product forged empires, felled kings, and cemented the power of generations of global rulers. The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was so obsessed with it, she even used it for the sails of her boat, while some Roman emperors decreed that anyone caught wearing it – other than them – would be sentenced to death.
…Tyrian purple, otherwise known as shellfish purple. But though this noble pigment was the most expensive product in antiquity – worth more than three times its weight in gold, according to a Roman edict issued in 301 AD – no one living today knows how to make it. By the 15th Century, the elaborate recipes to extract and process the dye had been lost.”
So what we do know from antiquity regarding the manufacturing process for Tyrian Purple and why can’t we replicate this process today? “Tyrian purple could be produced from the secretions of three species of sea snail, each of which made a different colour: Hexaplex trunculus (bluish purple), Bolinus brandaris (reddish purple), and Stramonita haemastoma (red).
Once snails had been collected, either by hand along rocky coastlines or with traps baited with other snails – Murex sea snails are predators – it was time to harvest the slime. In some places, the mucous gland was sliced it out using a specialised knife. One Roman author explained how the snail’s gore would then ooze out of its wounds, “flowing out like tears”, before being collected into mortars for grinding…
But this is the end of the certainty. Accounts of how colourless snail slime was transformed into the dye of legends are vague, contradictory and sometimes obviously mistaken – Aristotle said the mucous glands came from the throat of a “purple fish”. To complicate matters further, the dyeing industry was highly secretive – each manufacturer had their own recipe, and these complex, multi-step formulas were closely guarded.
“The problem is that people did not write down the important tricks,” says Maria Melo, a professor of conservation science at NOVA University of Lisbon, Portugal.”
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