Because of their nature as organic materials that inevitably decompose, textiles rarely survive in the archaeological record. When circumstances align for their preservation, these fragile artifacts provide a window into the social, economic, and technological spheres of the ancient world.
In January 2021, researchers at the site of Timna, in southern Israel’s arid Negev region, announced a unique discovery.1 They had recovered wool fabric not only dated all the way back to the tenth century B.C.E.—but also dyed purple! These are the first Iron Age purple textiles from the entire southern Levant.
Led by Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, the Central Timna Valley Project found three purple textile fragments in a heap of industrial waste on “Slaves’ Hill” (a large copper smelting camp) at the site. The fabric has been dated by radiocarbon to the late 11th–early 10th centuries B.C.E. (early Iron Age), which places these fragments in the days of the biblical kings David and Solomon. Some scholars believe that Timna at that time was a copper mine and smelting center for ancient Edom, Israel’s neighbor to the east.a Despite the name of Slaves’ Hill, the workers at this site were not slaves, but highly skilled metalworkers.