Friday, January 29, 2021

Exodus 25:2-4:

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.

And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair...
This is the first time of many that  Hebrew scripture mentions that specific type of purple, known as argaman, clearly an expensive dye that was used in the Mishkan (sanctuary) and the Temple, as well as worn by royalty.

Israeli archaeologists have just announced the discovery of samples of cloth dyed with that specific purple dating to the times of King David and King Solomon.

Researchers from Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University, and Bar-Ilan University spent years studying colored woven fibers excavated at Timna in the Negev Desert, the site of King Solomon's famed copper mines. Carbon-14 dating determined that they date from 1,000 BCE, the period in which David and Solomon reigned in Jerusalem. They published their findings on Thursday in the journal PLOS ONE.

The purple color, known as "argaman" in Hebrew and extracted from a type of Mediterranean sea snail at a distance of some 300 km (186 miles) from the Timna Valley in the southern Negev Desert, is mentioned in biblical sources a number of times. However, this is the first time that a Bronze Age woven fiber dyed royal purple has been found in Israel or anywhere else in the region.

The research was carried out by Dr. Naama Sukenik from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Prof. Erez Ben-Yosef, from the Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with Prof. Zohar Amar, Dr. David Iluz and Dr. Alexander Varvak from Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Orit Shamir from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Sukenik, who curates organic finds at the IAA, described the discovery of the purple cloth fibers as "extremely exciting and important."

"This is the first time that woven material from the time of David and Solomon died in the precious 'argaman' has been discovered. In ancient times, purple clothing was associated with the nobility, the priestly class, and of course, kings. The beautiful color of the argaman, the fact that it does not fade, and the difficulty of producing the dye, which exists in very small quantities in the bodies of the snails, made it the most expensive dye, sometimes costing more than gold.
This discovery has other implications.

One of the researchers was able to reproduce the process needed to create the specific purple dye from three types of Mediterranean snails, each of which only produce one gram of dye. The dye was extraordinarily expensive.

And Haaretz notes that the existence of such expensive clothing in a nomadic area illuminates other Biblical issues:

The good food and elegant clothes found at Timna are all signs of cultural sophistication, that add to the massive size and standardization of the mining operation there and at other copper extraction sites, such as Feynan in nearby Jordan. All of this points to the hand of a strong, centralized kingdom, despite the fact that we don’t have major remains of permanent settlements in the Negev from this period, Ben-Yosef says.

One possible explanation is that by the 11th-10th century B.C.E. the Edomites had managed to create a sophisticated political system and a highly stratified society despite continuing their nomadic or semi-nomadic ways, Ben-Yosef suggests.

The idea that scholars too often dismiss the complexities of ancient nomadic societies because they don’t leave behind massive archaeological remains for us to find is a paradigm that Ben-Yosef has been pushing for a while, including in an article he recently published in Haaretz. 

“The use of royal purple is more evidence that nomads could create a strong kingdom with an elite and vast trade ties, contrary to the traditional perception of nomadic societies as simple and isolated,” he says. “They would manifest power and wealth not by building walls and palaces but by obtaining exquisite artifacts that were mobile like they were.”

While archaeological evidence of a sedentary Edomite polity only dates back to around 8th century B.C.E., Ben-Yosef’s theory, if correct, would jive with the Bible’s assertion (Genesis 36:31) that such a kingdom existed already before the time of King David, that is, in the 11th-10th century B.C.E.

The archaeologist has suggested that this paradigm shift should apply not only to the Edomites but also to the Israelites and the longstanding debate among scholars over the historicity of the great united monarchy of Israel and Judah under David and Solomon. Most experts today argue that there is no archaeological evidence in Jerusalem or its environs pointing to the existence of a great, centralized kingdom as described in the Old Testament. Just as for the Edomites, the architectural hallmarks of political grandeur appear only in the subsequent centuries. So, this line of thought argues, David and Solomon would have been at best small local chieftains who were aggrandized by the Bible, which was put in writing centuries after these legendary rulers lived. However, Ben-Yosef counters, we should at least take into account the possibility that David’s kingdom did exist but was based on a still largely nomadic population, just like Edom apparently was, which would inevitably leave behind little tangible evidence.

At the very least, the newly discovered luxurious textiles at Timna show that the biblical descriptions of royal purple being used by the elites of the Israelites and their neighbors already in the time of King David are not an anachronism inserted by later authors projecting their own traditions back into the past, Ben-Yosef notes.

You have to admit, it is a pretty color.

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