Deep Purple: Dyeing Egyptian Textiles

Daniel Soliman

The oldest preserved textiles from Egypt, woven in linen, date back to around 2900 BCE. Because it is difficult to dye linen, the Egyptians preferred their linen clothing bright white and sometimes translucent. Colours were used sparsely to decorate clothes, mostly with black, blue, red, yellow and green dyes. Influenced by Greek and Roman traditions, Egyptian weavers adopted new weaving techniques and decorative motifs from ca. the fourth century BCE and onwards. They began to weave woollen decorations into linen garments. The woollen threads were dyed, and fabrics became more colourful.

In imperial Rome, the colour purple had a special significance in clothing. It was restricted by law to the social elite and it indicated particular ranks. Only senators could wear tunics decorated with broad vertical bands of purple wool, while members of the equestrian class were allowed to wear narrow purple bands. The exclusivity of the colour, also known as Tyrian purple, was connected with the highly expensive production process of this imperial dye. The colour was obtained from the secretion of a species of sea snails – Murex brandaris– that lives in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Several thousands of sea snails were required to create just one gram of pure dye!

It is, therefore, not surprising that textile workers turned to cheaper alternatives for purple dye. So did the Egyptians, who had taken a fancy to textiles with purple decorations. In Roman Egypt, the colour was not strictly worn by the elite: garments of men, women and children alike could be decorated with purple wool. The colour remained popular during the Byzantine Period and the Medieval Period. But how to obtain affordable purple dye…

Detail of a large textile with rectangular, tapestry woven decoration in purple wool (forth–fifth century CE). © National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, AES 158

The ancient Mediterranean textile industry developed several solutions. Some are written down in a codex from Egypt, dating to the late third–early fourth century CE. The codex, now in Leiden, consists of ten papyrus sheets folded double that were originally bound together in a book. The pages are inscribed in Greek using black ink. The Greek is teeming with bad spelling and grammatical errors, which may indicate that it is a poor copy of another manuscript. The codex is a collection of short recipes, the majority of which deal with the preparation of metal alloys and the purification of metals, and the creation of imitation gold or silver for the manufacture of jewellery. Five recipes on pages 12–14 deal with procedures to create purple dye without sea snails.

Page 13 of the Leiden codex (late third–early fourth century CE). © National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, AMS 66

One method reads as follows:

Grind lime with water and let it stand overnight. After having decanted it, place the wool in the liquid for one day. Remove it and dry it, having sprinkled the alkanet with some vinegar. Boil it and throw the wool in it, and it will emerge dyed in purple. 

The recipe makes use of the alkanet plant, whose dark red roots were used to create dye. Another procedure in the codex combines alkanet with the bark of a pomegranate tree:

Grind some walnuts with some alkanet of good quality. Having done so, place them in strong vinegar. Grind again. Add some pomegranate bark to the mixture. Lay aside for three days, and after this, submerge the wool in it and it will be dyed once cold. […]

Page 14 of the Leiden codex (late third–early fourth century CE). © National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, AMS 66

Because several recipes deal with the “manufacture” of gold and silver, earlier scholars who studied the codex had interpreted the text as an alchemistic treatise. The inclusion of recipes dealing with dyes clearly show that these texts are, in fact, instructions for craftsmen working in the metal industry and textile industry. This goes to show that, in the year 400, imitation materials were just as common as they are today. 

Technical Details 
Provenance: Probably from a tomb in Thebes.
Date: Late 3rd–early 4th century CE.
Language: Greek.
Collection: National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden, The Netherlands (AMS 66; also known as cat. I 397)
Designation: Papyrus Leiden X (=Papyrus Leyden X or Papyrus Leidensis X).
Select Bibliography: Adriano Caffaro & Giuseppe Falanga (2004) Il papiro di Leida. Un document di tecnica artistica e artigianele del IV secolo d. C., (Salerno); Robert Halleux (1981) Papyrus de Leyden, papyrus de Stockholm, fragments de recettes. Texte éstabli et traduction (Paris); William B. Jensen & Earle Radcliffe Caley (2008) The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri. Greco-Egyptian Chemical Documents From the Early 4th Century AD. An English Translation with Brief Notes. Edited, with a New General Introduction, A Note on techniques and a Materials Index (Cincinnati), pp. 6–9, 17–46; Conrad Leemans (1985) Papyri graeci Musei antiquarii publici Lugduni-Batavi, vol. II (Leiden), pp. 204–209; Vera Trost (1991) Gold- und Silbertinten. Technologische Untersuchungen zur abendländischen Chrysographie und Argyrographie von der Spätantike bis zum hohen Mittelalter (Wiesbaden), pp. 58–102.

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

4 thoughts on “Deep Purple: Dyeing Egyptian Textiles

  1. I’m an enthusiastic and completely inexperienced dyer with indigo and woad and I’ve found that coarse linen is actually the fabric that is easiest to dye. I’ve used it with cotton and with cotton-linen damask and it’s the one that is the most deeply coloured, the most stable afterwards (I make quilts with the results of my dye vat).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting!!! Thank you for sharing your experience. I wonder why the Egyptians found it so difficult dying linen – I’m sure I could find literature on this. The Copenhagen Textile Research Centre May be a good place to start (they publish a lot of mainly in English)


      1. I’ll be very interested to follow your trail. I’m absolutely not an expert, no chemistry background (I’m a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction!), but I am interested in the process of indigo dye work and like to use a variety of textiles when I make a dye vat. I’m always interested in the history of textile work via Elizabeth Wayland Barber and others but again, I’m not a scholar, just a passionate amateur.

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