What color blue did King Solomon wear? New evidence tells us

Excavations of copper mines find earliest Israeli traces of dye used for prestigious garments for skilled workers

Fragments of dyed woolen textile with red and blue stripes found in Israel's Timna Valley (Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
Roots of the madder plant used to produce the red pigment (Shahar Cohen, courtesy of Prof. Zohar Amar, Bar-Ilan University)
Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr. Naama Sukenik examining fragments of colored textiles recovered at Timna. (Yolli Schwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
Microscopic magnification (x60) of woolen textile from Timna dyed in red and blue stripes (photo taken with Dino-Lite microscope, Dr. Naama Sukenik, Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Timna Valley excavations site (Erez Ben-Yosef, Tel Aviv University)

Preserved pieces of cloth from King Solomon’s time point to a colorful clothing palette for metalworkers in biblical era Timna. This is the earliest evidence of a plant-based dye in Israel, according to a study released on Wednesday.

The arid desert conditions of Timna, found in Israel’s southern Negev desert, preserved the red and blue plant pigmentation found by archaeologists on dozens of fragments of 3,000-year-old textiles, according to a team of researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Tel Aviv University and Bar-Ilan University.

Since 2013, Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University has directed excavations in the Timna Valley where his team has found textiles dating back to the Iron Age (11-10 centuries BCE). On some of the fragments, there is a decorative pattern of red and blue bands.

In an article published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, the researchers hypothesize that the metalworkers, considered fine craftsmen, “were probably entitled to wear colorful clothing as a mark of their high status.”

Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef (left) and Dr. Naama Sukenik examining fragments of colored textiles recovered at Timna. (Yolli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to Ben-Yosef and the IAA’s Dr. Naama Sukenik, the findings indicate that the society at Timna, identified with the Kingdom of Edom, was hierarchical and included an upper class that had access to colorful, prestigious textiles.

The concept of highly prized, skilled laborers flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which had supposed that slaves had largely manned the isolated copper mines.

Woolen textile from the Timna Valley. (Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority)

The dyes are mainly derived from two plants: the red from roots of madder; the blue from indigotin, which likely came from dyer’s woad. The process of creating and using the blue dye, according to the researchers, is a multi-day complex process involving reduction and oxidization.

While the types of plants used for dyeing the cloth is unsurprising — both are among the most common plant dyes in the ancient world — the process of dyeing, called “true dye,” is sophisticated and exhibits professional skill. These weren’t garments to be donned by plebeians.

As the textile pieces are kept under climate control conditions at the IAA, the team is exploring other open-ended questions such as Iron Age fashion and the status and technology involved in creating them.

What is clear is that these were no ordinary shmattes.

Excavations in the Timna Valley. (Erez Ben-Yosef/Tel Aviv University)
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