Dyes and Dyeing

Looking at the beginning of the use of fibres for textiles, there is also evidence for the use of dyes along with spinning, weaving and felting. Dyeing was done with whatever was available locally but the development of the wool trade coincided with that for dye stuffs.

Red and yellow ochre are types of clay that can be used to colour anything. They were certainly used to create art and to colour prehistoric human bodies. The extensive use of ochre is evidenced by deep ochre deposits within caves from some of the very first archaeological discoveries all over the globe. First nation Australians have been creating paintings using ochre for up to 30,000 years.
The most ancient of textile fragments have small traces of colour associated with them. These include not surprisingly, red from madder, blue from indigo or woad, and yellow from weld, all of which are still used to some extent today.

Cuniform tablet with instructions for dyeing wool blue and purple.

Clay cuneiform tablet; instructions for dyeing wool;

In addition to plant based dyes sea snails were used to create the special colour of Imperial or Tyrian Purple. Tyrian refers to the city of Tyre in Lebanon. The discovery of ancient crushed murex shells is shows historic production of purple dye. It was expensive and complex to produce, and items coloured with it became associated with power and wealth. It was created from a mucous secretion of sea snails. These produce a secretion when they are threatened by predators, or poked by humans. This is a form of ‘milking’ them and more sustainable than simply crushing thousands of them to get a very small amount of dye – 12,000 snails to create enough to colour the trim of one garment. Having even a small amount of purple on your garments was a sign of great wealth and therefore importance. You can see the detailed instructions on how to dye blue and purple wool, etched in a tablet from Mesopotamia between 600 and 500 BCE.

The production and use of wool fuelled the first industrialised economies. In Assyria there were state run sheep farms with workers producing textiles from wool. They were paid in wool for both garments and for barter. The recipients of their work were the royal family, the palace staff and the army. Any excess production was commercialised and exported westwards from the modern day Northern Iraq towards the Eastern Mediterranean.

In addition to palaces being a hive of industry other sources of power were the temples. In Babylon, temple archives document the economic and administrative organisation of these institutions. Wool played a crucial role in their economy and the surplus was a productive source of income for them. Families who were linked commercially to a temple were also able to take advantage of wool benefits. A flock of 36 sheep was enough to provide for a whole extended family.

Most of the information for this short series of posts was prompted by my finding a summary paper on ‘Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean’ by Catherine Breniquet, Cécile Michel. This is a short document outlining the work done at a conference in 2012 that combined a number of academic disciplines to investigate the role of wool in ancient economic development. The full proceedings of the conference include 22 different papers and are available in book form.

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