A rare scrap of fabric holds a vital clue to the origins of biblical dye known as techelet.
The blue dye, which was used to color strands in tzit-tzit and priestly garments, has long been a subject of controversy among those who question the exact hue the dye produced and how exactly the precious dye was made.
Discovered in the 1950’s, the scrap, which experts estimate is nearly 2,000 years old, was found in the caves of Wadi Murba’at, where fighters hid during the Bar Kochba revolt. One of only three known techelet scraps in existence, Dr. Na’ama Sukenik, a curator at the Israel Antiquities Authority, recently tested the dye found on the fabric fragment to discover how the dye was produced in ancient times.
Sukenik found the dye, which appears light blue on the scrap, was derived from a marine mollusk known as the murex trunchular. The dye also appears to be locally produced, according to the researcher, who pointed out that the tassels on the ancient fragment were spun in a way consistent with manufacturing within Israel during the period.
Physicist and author of “The Rarest Blue,” Baruch Sterman, called the discovery, which was announced during a special conference held in Israel focused on the dye, “a fascinating finding.”
Explaining the significance he added, “Here we have evidence that in Israel, in the second century, they had the technology to dye blue using murex, and there was an entire industry in Israel that had all this advanced technology.”
He also stressed that the chance of finding any fabric scrap in Israel is “miniscule” due to the weather conditions in the region. Finding a fragment that can be linked to a lost Israeli industry is rarer still and particularly valuable among those, like Sterman, who are trying to revive the ancient art.
“This was an industry that was lost 1,300 years ago,” Sterman said, pointing out that while three fabric fragments exist with the dye in both lighter and more purplish shades, the fabric recently tested by Sukenik is the only one that shows evidence of being produced in Israel.