High Prestige Royal Purple Dyed Textiles from the Bronze Age Royal Tomb at Qatna, Syria

Article excerpt


One of the most significant tombs discovered in recent times emerged during excavations in 2002 of the Bronze Age royal palace of ancient Qama, Tell Mishrife, Syria (Pfalzner 2004; Lange 2005; Figure 1). The tomb complex (Figures 1 and 2) comprises four chambers cut into the rock of the cliff face, all of which had remained sealed since destruction of the overlying palace in 1340 BC by the invading Hittites. More than 2000 individual artefacts have been found within the tomb, including numerous ceramic and stone vessels, human and animal bones, metal objects, jewellery and decorative items fashioned from gold, amber and precious stones (Mukherjee et al. 2007). It is estimated that the tomb was used for 300-400 years for the burial of a number of the royal elite, prior to the destruction of the palace complex.


In addition to the extensive range of artefacts, a layer of sediment up to 150mm deep covered the tomb floor, with several loci characterised by substantial areas of dark brown staining (Figure 2). Since the tomb is rock-cut, these sediments are entirely anthropogenic in nature, having formed as a result of ceremonial/ritual activities and the decay of funerary paraphernalia, offerings and corpses. Due to the unusual nature of these sediments and the poor morphological preservation of organic materials within the tomb, investigations were initiated that aimed at mapping funerary activities by means of sediment chemistry.


Detection and characterisation of Royal Purple in the tomb sediments

Fifty-two sediment samples were taken. Organic elemental analyses (C,H,N) confirmed that darkly stained areas were higher in organic matter (%C 0.6 to 7.6; %N 0.05 to 1.02) than those from other parts of the tomb complex (%C 0.1 to 0.5; %N 0 to 0.02). On extraction with solvents, a number of the darkly coloured sediments yielded vivid purple extracts, which were subsequently determined by a combination of high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), mass spectrometry (MS) and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) to contain brominated derivatives of indigo and indirubin (see Technical Note, below).

Whilst indigo occurs in a number of plants and invertebrates, its brominated derivatives, together with brominated indirubins, are unique to molluscan purple dyes (McGovern et al. 1990; Koren 1995; Cooksey 2001; Karapanagiotis et al. 2006). The presence of these compounds in the sediment extracts is therefore unequivocal evidence for the use of this dyestuff in the royal tomb at Qatna. Tyrian or Royal Purple can be obtained from numerous species of mollusc throughout the world, although Hexaplex trunculus, Bolinus brandaris and Stramonita haernastoma were the principal species exploited in antiquity in the Mediterranean region (Robinson 1971; Spanier & Karmon 1987; McGovern & Michel 1990; Stieglitz 1994). The principal component of fresh dye from the majority of species is 6,6'-dibromoindigo (Cooksey 2001), however, only H. trunculus is known to yield both brominated and non-brominated components (Wouters & Verhecken 1991; Cooksey & Withnall 2001; Sotiropoulou & Karapanagiotis 2006; see also Technical Note).

Discovery of purple dyed woven fabrics

The loci of several of the purple coloured extracts were associated with the presence of precious artefacts, including jewellery and gold beads, likely to have decorated garments or fabrics that adorned corpses, now apparently completely decayed. The obvious conclusion is that the pigments present in the sediment extracts were remnants of the Royal Purple used to dye those fabrics. With this in mind, we performed microscopic hand sorting of the sediments collected from the tomb floor and from a stone table, revealing several thousand millimetre-sized fragments of textile, identifiable from weave patterns, e.g. Figure 3a-c. More significantly, a number of textile fragments exhibited distinctive traces of colour on their surface or within their cross sections, clearly suggesting the presence of the dyestuff. …