Why Was Purple Such An Expensive Dye In Ancient Times?

The ancient Phoenicians lived from 2500-550 BC and were a great sea faring and trading civilisation. They came from Tyre and Byblos – an area we know now as Lebanon. I’ll write about the amazing Phoenicians more in-depth in a future post, but now I thought you’d be interested in how they made the purple dye they were famous for. Tyrian Purple.

The Ancient Greeks gave the Phoenicians their name, which means People Of The Purple because of the purple dye they made. The founded the ancient city of Carteia, (near Gibraltar) in 940 BC which was a major centre for the manufacture and export of their purple dye.

Making the dye involved intense manual labour and required an immense amount of small Murex snails. The Murex when frightened, would excrete a few drops of yellow liquid, which turns purple when exposed to oxygen.

The shells needed to be smashed. Mixed with water and a few additives (like urine); then left to ferment for some time. Anything dipped in the fermented water would turn purple. It took approximately 10,000 snails to make enough dye for one robe. This is why purple is associated with royalty. They were the only ones that could afford it. Here are two video links if you’re interested in learning more.: