Tyrian Purple Found Near Hadrian’s Wall

This is the first discovery of the biblical status symbol in northern Europe.
Tyrian purple fragment found at Carlisle, England.
Photo: Wardell Armstrong

On May 3, archaeologists announced the discovery of Tyrian purple at a Roman site in northern England. For thousands of years, Tyrian purple was valued as a luxury good throughout the ancient world. This is the first time the substance has been found in northern Europe.

The excavation is on land owned by a cricket club in Carlisle and is centered around a Roman bathhouse dating to the early third century c.e. Wardell Armstrong, a mining consultant group, has been sponsoring the excavations, which will continue until October.

Tyrian purple is a luxury dye processed from the murex, a type of sea snail found off the coast of the Levant. The Phoenicians, a civilization that occupied modern-day Lebanon, had a near-monopoly over it in ancient times. The color itself got its name from Tyre, one of Phoenicia’s major city-states.

So what is this eastern Mediterranean dye doing on the other side of the known world?

Rome took the same architectural models to every region it conquered. The same type of walls, the same mosaics, etc can be seen in nations from Israel to Germany. The bathhouse was one of these architectural imports. The bathhouse at Carlisle is especially interesting because it was situated right next to Uxelodunum, Rome’s largest fort guarding Hadrian’s Wall.

Emperor Hadrian, who reigned from 117–138 c.e., was a great consolidator of the empire. According to the anonymous Late Roman Augustan History, in his reorganization of Roman Britain, he “drew a wall along a length of 80 miles to separate barbarians and Romans.”

Despite being on the fringes of the Roman world, Britain received a lot of attention from the imperial court. In 208, Emperor Septimius Severus relocated his court to Britain in a campaign against the “barbarians.” He would stay there until his death in 211. This is the period in which the bathhouse was constructed. Discovered among the ruins was a stone fragment with a dedicated engraving to Julia Domna, Septimius Severus’s wife.

Other remains show the bathhouse had monumental decorations. Archaeologists found two sandstone-sculpted heads of Roman gods estimated to have been 2.5 to 4.5 meters tall (12 to 15 feet).

Most archaeological evidence of Tyrian purple comes from stained fabrics or stained pottery, but the Carlisle sample is unique in that it is in solid form. The dye was mixed with beeswax for preservation. It surfaced in excavations last October, but it has taken several months for chemical analysis to confirm its composition.

Tyrian purple is also called “imperial purple” because of its association with Rome’s emperors. Not only were dyed fabrics beautiful to look at, they were also expensive. The dye could only be produced in coastal regions with healthy snail populations. Scientists estimate it took about 12,000 snails to produce less than 2 grams of dye. The fourth-century c.e. Emperor Diocletian in his Edict of Maximum Prices lists 1 pound of the dye as costing 150,000 denarii—three times the value of gold. Only the wealthiest could afford Tyrian purple.

This makes the discovery of the dye at Carlisle intriguing: It is so far the only sample of Tyrian purple found in northern Europe; the bathhouse is located next to the largest fort on a major international border; it is dedicated to the wife of the emperor—an emperor who came to Britain to fortify the province; and the bathhouse itself has a distinct North African design (Septimius Severus was born in what is now Libya).

Based on these factors, the excavators suspect the bathhouse may have been a mansio (an official residence for imperial officials) and may have even hosted Septimius Severus himself. “For millennia, Tyrian purple was the world’s most expensive and sought after color,” Frank Giecco, Wardell Armstrong’s technical director, stated in a press release. “Its presence in Carlisle combined with other evidence from the excavation all strengthens the hypothesis that the building was in some way associated with the imperial court of the emperor Septimius Severus which was located in York and possibly relates to an imperial visit to Carlisle.”

If this is the case, this would make the Carlisle sample a great testimony to the luxury dye’s timelessness. Exodus 25:1-8 detail the construction of the tabernacle. Purple fabric (most likely from murex) is one of the listed materials. This would have been in the 15th century b.c.e.in the late Bronze Age. Exodus 28:8 and other passages shows the high priest’s clothing also contained purple fabric. The most important structure in the nation and the attire of the nation’s most important public figure both required this special color.

Other biblical passages show this purple color as a symbol of status in ancient Israel. Judges 8:26 shows that the Midianite kings who Gideon slew wore purple suits. Verse 27 shows Gideon combined the purple fabric with gold that was looted from Midian to create a special golden outfit that caught the attention of the whole country.

2 Chronicles 2:6 shows that King Solomon, five centuries after Moses in the 10th century b.c.e., hired a Tyrian artisan skilled in using the purple dye for the construction of the first temple. 2 Chronicles 3:14 shows Tyrian purple as the dye for the veil of the temple’s “most holy place.”

Esther 8:15 records Persia’s King Xerxes i (known in the Bible as Ahasuerus) glorifying Mordecai with “a garment of fine linen and purple” after the defeat of Haman in the fifth century b.c.e.

The Hebrew Bible alone shows Tyrian purple as being the status symbol of society’s most powerful for at least a millennium.

Even in the first century c.e., purple still had this association in the Holy Land. John 19:2 states that the Roman soldiers, mocking Jesus’s claim of kingship, adorned him with a purple robe. The book of Revelation records a curse on Rome in chapters 17 and 18. Revelation 18:16 specifies that Rome was “clothed in finest purple and scarlet linens” (New Living Translation). The author saw Tyrian purple a fitting metaphor for the imperial capital in general.

Is it a surprise, then, that 100 years later this same dye would be found decorating a possible residence of the most powerful man on Earth at the time—even at the other end of the known world?