Murex Shell and the Purple Dye.

27 Apr

In my previous post about the conservation of a Minoan pithos I mentioned that many shells are often found on archaeological excavations, and that the most treasured was the murex shell from which the Minoans extracted a small gland to make their beautiful color Tyrian purple.

A WORKSHOP FOR DYING WOOL  (By Stavroula Apostolakou)

In 2007,a bulldozer widening the highway near Pacheia Ammos quite near to where John and I work at Instap Study Center for East Crete. A Minoan pithos burial and a small cave filled with early Minoan lll pottery was discovered. In the search for additional tombs,a series of cuttings in bedrock filled with sherds were discovered at a location called Pefka,across the road from the small cave and the Minoan burial. The 24th Ephorate excavated this site in 2007 and 2008 with technical assistance given by Thomas Brogan,Philip Betancourt,and personnel  from the INSTAP Study Center.

Excavation at the site of Pefka

The evidence indicates that the site was a workshop making purple dye from murex shells,and probably manufactured other colors as well. Several vats were carved into the bedrock,and a deep well was found nearby.Many crushed murex shells were found in the workshop,including a clay jar filled with them that was discovered in the well

The Well at Pefka

Ceramic Jar found containing Murex Shells from the Well.

The crushed murex shells provide the clue for the use of the vats. We know from the writings of Pliny and other ancient writers that murex shells were used to make the bright violet color “Royal purple” or ” Tyrian purple”. Although workshops have not been found in Minoan Crete until now, the production of purple from murex is well known from discoveries of workshops from other periods.

Murex Shells.


Each animal has a tiny gland that can be removed and used for the color.Because thousands of murex shells must be collected to make a very small amount of the dye, bright purple cloth was very highly valued and the processs of preparing the dye was a lengthy one. Pliny wrote that the animals were crushed to remove the glands,then soaked in salt water for three days, and then heated for nine more days before the dye was ready to be used by pouring it into a vat to colour the wool.

Some scholars believe the purple dye was discovered on Crete because crushed murex shells have been found with Middle Minoan pottery at several places on the island. The first such deposits were found at Palaikastro and at Kouphonisi at the beginning of the 20th century,however they were not associated with any evidence for the workshop making the dye.The pottery with the basins at Pefka is from Middle Minoan llB

The Pefka workshop was set up on a limestone hill overlooking the gulf of Mirabello and the village of Pacheia Ammos. It consisted of nine vats carved into bedrock along with the mortars to crush the murex shells and a depression with a drain to wash the wool before it was dyed. Basin 1 was a circular cutting 2 metres across basin 2, a rectangular carved depression a little over 4 meters long, was the upper opening for a well that was sunk 8.5 meters deep into the bedrock. The well was designed to provide fresh water for the operation,but it was unsuccessful because a hard layer of bedrock was reached before the water table,so the well was abandonded.  It was then used as a place for the dirty water from washing wool by draining the water into it from Basin 4 (because lanolin the oil in wool) floats,it can be drained off as the wool is washed. The dying would have been accomplished in a row of similar basins that form a line east to west across the hill. All the basins were a little more than a meter long.Each one had a shallow trough cut at its side in order to allow the wool to be pulled out of the vat so the extra dye would drain back into the basin. The presence of so many basins suggests the workshop was making several different colors (each dye needs its own basin to keep the color as pure as possible).

Plan of Pefka Workshop        Detail of Basin

Unfortunately,the buildings associated with these vats did not survive because extensive terrace building and other construction in the area,including a guard house built during World War ll,scavenged all the stones large enough for construction. The pottery and other artifacts,however do survive,and they provide useful information on the workshop and its operation.The pottery includes large numbers of cooking pots that would have been useful in heating the dyes,as well as many jars, basins,and pithoi for storing the ingredients and the finished products.

A few cups and other fine pieces show that the workers lived at their workshop.Only a few loom weights were present,so the only step in the production of cloth that took place here was the dying of the wool;the spinning of thread and weaving of cloth took place elsewhere. 

The scale of the workshop is palatial. The large number of basins for dying suggests a continuous operation on a large scale. If two or three persons were needed to prepare the ingredients,cut the firewood,and tend the fires for each color,wash the wool in preparation for inserting into the vats,and dry and store it for shipment,and similar groups worked on each color the workshop could have consisted of fifteen or more people, not counting additional personel for preparing food and tending to other chores.

A Middle Minoan llB prism seal found in the well and some pieces of the finest Kamares Ware suggest that a supervisor was probably present to manage the operation. The seal is very similar to examples from a workshop at Quartier Mu at Malia. Because of its large size,the workshop at Pefka was probably associated with one of the Minoan palaces,either Gournia,which is located nearby, or Malia,the place where the prism seal was made


Posted by on April 27, 2012 in Uncategorized


9 responses to “Murex Shell and the Purple Dye.

  1. nikki Broadwell

    April 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Hi Rita,
    I love your blog! Did you ever succeed in leaving a comment on mine? All I know is that you have to sign in with some sort of user name…very weird…sometimes it even blocks me out!


    • ritaroberts

      June 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm

      Hi Nikki. I still have not managed to get a comment through on your blog. I keep trying.


    • ritaroberts

      June 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm

      Still trying to leave a comment on your Blog Nikki. perhaps you can leave some other instructions to follow. Best wishes Rita.


  2. vallance22

    December 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Reblogged this on Linear B, Knossos & Mycenae and commented:
    This article explains how the Murex Shell purple been excavated and how it is used as a dye. Richafrd


  3. Hector Williams

    December 24, 2014 at 12:53 am

    Has anyone collected “all” examples from Aegean excavations of crushed murex shells or shells pierced to remove the dye bearing glands? We have both from at least Hellenistic levels at Mytilene and I am looking for parallels. The Hittite texts apparently refer to “purple dyers of Lazpa”, which seems to be LBA Lesbos. Hector Williams


    • ritaroberts

      December 29, 2014 at 9:08 am

      Hello Hector if you contact the INSTAP STUDY CENTER FOR EAST CRETE in PACHIA AMMOS Crete they will be able to give you more information.


  4. T.Farkas

    September 28, 2016 at 10:58 am

    Hi Rita enjoy reading your blog!
    Did the Minoans farm Murex? Are there vestiges of Murex farms? Big operations would have needed a lot of Murex. 🐚👀😀 Thalassa


    • ritaroberts

      September 28, 2016 at 6:02 pm

      Hi Thalassa, pleased you enjoyed this post about the Murex shells and the Tyrian purple dye. There certainly was an industry but only on a small scale in early Minoan times. And yes, it took hundreds of these shells to produce the dye for even just a dress. By the Roman times, of course the industry had grown. You know the Romans for doing things on a much greater scale.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: