Evidence of early plant-based dyeing in Israel

Textile-dyeing has been practised since prehistoric times, using dyes extracted from both plant and animal sources, as well as inorganic materials. But the majority of natural dyes are derived from plants. Plant-based dyes such as woad, indigo, saffron and madder were important trade goods in the economies of Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
[Image: Naama Sukenik]
Archaeological textiles tend to be rare finds. Like any perishable organic material, they are subject to rapid decomposition and their preservation requires special conditions to prevent their destruction by microorganisms[1]. Extremely dry or, alternatively, oxygen-deficient permanently wet environments such as in a peat bog, are the most conducive to the preservation of textiles in their original organic state[2].

Central Timna Valley in Israel is an extreme arid environment and perfect for the preservation of textiles. Many fragments of textiles and cordages were found: 116 fragments were uncovered during the 2013 and 2014 excavation seasons and a few dozens of other textile fragments were uncovered in the successive 2015 and 2016 seasons. The textiles were radiocarbon dated to the early Iron Age (11th-10th centuries BC[3].

What plants were used to colour these textiles? Analysis indicated that the textiles were dyed using two different plants: Madder (Rubia tinctorum) for red and - most probably - woad (Isatis tinctoria) for blue[4]. These plants are among the earliest known in the dyeing craft.

[1] Strand et al:Old Textiles–New Possibilities in European Journal of Archaeology – 2010 
[2] Good: Archaeological Textiles: A Review of Current Research in Annual Review of Anthropology – 2001 [3] Ben-Yosef: Back to Solomon’s Era: Results of the First Excavations at Slaves’ Hill (Site 34, Timna, Israel) in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research – 2016 
[4] Sukenik et al: Early evidence (late 2nd millennium BCE) of plant-based dyeing of textiles from Timna, Israel in Plos One - 2017. See here.

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