Bethany Jensen and Faculty Mentor: Kerry Muhlestein, Ancient Scripture
Brigham Young University began excavating in Fag el-Gamous, Egypt in 1981. This large (125 hectare) Graeco-Roman necropolis in the eastern Fayoum was in use from about the second century BCE until its decline around the eighth century CE. Within the last three decades of research and excavation, Fag el-Gamous has yielded a large number of burials. From these BYU has unearthed a unique collection of textile fragments. Among these fragments are many beautifully dyed pieces, including several pieces with purple threads.
The purple threads used in the textiles come in a variety of hues, suggesting that there are different dye sources for the threads. In the ancient world the source for true purple dye came from a type of sea snail known as Murex. This dye was highly prized, very expensive, and frequently used for royal garments. Because of its desirable nature, purple dye was often imitated with mixtures of blue and red dyes. Due to the variety of hues present in this collection, it seems likely that the people buried in the cemetery at Fag el-Gamous used imitation purple for their garments. This project aims to determine what, if any, proportion of true purple was used in the necropolis and how its presence (or absence) influences how we view the population buried in the cemetery.
Dye analysis was conducted according to the process described in Nowik, W., R. Marcinowska, K. Kusyk, D. Cardon, and M. Trojanowicz. “High performance liquid chromatography of slightly soluble brominated indigoids from Tyrian purple.” Journal of Chromatography A 1218 (2011): 1244-1252.
The first step was to collect the samples. The experiment requires 1-3 mg of textile sample for analysis. This is approximately 1-2cm of a single thread. A few threads were collected and put in plastic screw-top vials.
Once the threads were collected, 0.5 mL of dimethylsulfoxide (DMSO) was added to the vial. The vial with the textile sample and DMSO was incubated in a water bath at 80° C for 15 minutes.
The solution was then extracted using a pipette out of the plastic vial and filtered using a syringe and filter into glass vials to send to the high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) lab to identify the dye components.
The BYU HPLC lab followed the experiment as outlined in the previously mentioned article. The results of HPLC analysis are given in minutes. HPLC analysis measures the flow rates of a solution after it has interacted with another material in the column. These flow rates make it possible to identify different compounds. We were able to compare flow rates of threads from the textiles with the rates of a Tyrian standard and an indigo standard, thus indicating if the sample was indigo or Tyrian. Some samples we neither indigo nor Tyrian and further testing must be done in order to determine what was used to create the dye(s) on these threads.
Dye analysis was conducted six times. The first run tested 8 different threads from 6 different fragments and included an indigo standard. 7 of the 8 samples were positively identified as indigo. One sample is unknown, but is neither Tyrian nor indigo.
The second run tested 11 threads from 10 different textiles. 10 of the 11 samples are indigo. One sample is unknown, but is neither Tyrian nor indigo.
The third run tested 11 threads from 11 different textiles. All samples are indigo.
The fourth run tested 8 threads from 8 different textiles. 5 of the 8 are indigo. 3 samples are unknown, but are neither Tyrian nor indigo.
The fifth run tested 11 threads from 9 different textiles and 7 standards. 10 of the 11 samples are indigo. One samples is unknown, but is neither Tyrian nor indigo.
The sixth run tested 24 threads from 21 different textiles and 3 standards. 23 of the 24 samples are indigo. One sample is unknown, but is neither Tyrian nor indigo.
Based on the above results, we can conclude that Tyrian purple was not found in the sampled textiles. Nearly all of the textiles were positively identified as indigo. Those samples that were not positively identified were neither indigo nor Tyrian. It is possible that Tyrian purple may have been used on a textile somewhere in the cemetery, but much more extensive analysis is required.
The Fag el-Gamous cemetery has produced an extensive collection of textiles. The majority of the textile fragments are plain weave linen, but there are a number of beautifully dyed pieces, including many pieces with purple designs. There is a wide variety of purple hues visible in this collection and nearly all of the purple pieces analyzed in this study were determined to be made from indigo. Those not identified as indigo were determined to be neither indigo, nor Tyrian. The wide variety of hues suggests that indigo (blue dye) and madder (red dye) were mixed to create purple in various proportions. Some of these textiles are visually very similar to textiles that were dyed with shellfish purple, showing that the influence of “purple mania” did indeed reach as far as Fag el-Gamous but “true purple” did not. Tyrian purple is not present among the textile fragments analyzed in this study.
While it would be very interesting to find a textile dyed with Tyrian purple in this necropolis, it does not make a lot of sense in this context. First, the Fayoum is removed from the main thoroughfares of trade. Second, the burials here seem to be those of relatively poor individuals. Geographically, the Fayoum is not close to the major ports and cities in Egypt. Not that trade couldn’t have reached this far inland, just that it seems rather unlikely for this particular commodity to travel so far from its origin to a non-royal population. This is especially evident from the Roman period. Purple as a commodity exploded under the Romans. The people of the Fayoum were mostly Greek and Egyptian and would therefore not be among the elite who had access to Tyrian purple dyed textiles. This goes along with the second point about the improbability of finding Tyrian purple in this cemetery. The people buried in the cemetery of Fag el-Gamous had rather poor burials, indicating that they may have been poor in life, or the people who buried them were poor. Grave goods are sparse, there is no evidence of mummification, and the burials in general appear to only have been well taken care of because of the preservative nature of Egypt’s environment. The lack of Tyrian purple is consistent with what is currently thought about the people using this necropolis; they were not wealthy. Further excavation may improve upon this current understanding.