Ancient Tel Shikmona factory probably supplied the First Temple with dye

Biblical era purple dye industry
Biblical era purple dye industry discovered in Haifa (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)

A new study by the University of Haifa claims to completely change the story of the biblical Shikmona.

Tel Shikmona, which was under the control of the Kingdom of Israel between the middle of the ninth century and the middle of the eighth century BCE, was the largest purple factory in the area during the Iron Age and the one that apparently supplied the prestigious purple color to the First Temple.

A new study by the University of Haifa claims to completely change the story of the biblical Shikmona and turn it into one of the most fascinating testimonies to the flourishing of the Kingdom of Israel and its extensive conquests in the north of the country at that time.

Tel Shikmona is an ancient Phoenician archaeological mound situated near Haifa.   The Mishna, compiled in 189 CE, mentions Shikmona as being renowned for its cultivated variety of jujube trees, which produced a gummy type of candy drop.

The main archaeological excavations conducted at the tel and in the Byzantine city south of it were carried out by archaeologist Joseph Elgavish in the 1960s and 1970s on behalf of the Haifa Municipality’s museums department. Salvage excavations were conducted in the 1990s by the Israel Antiquities Authority and concentrated in the eastern part of the Byzantine city, west of the Carmel Mountain slopes, where the city’s necropolis is.
Salted murex glands
Salted murex glands dry in the sun during the process to produce a dye known as Tyrian purple, in Tunis, Tunisia February 5, 2022. Picture taken February 5, 2022. (credit: AMIRA KARAOUD/REUTERS)

According to the new research, Tel Shikmona was a large factory for the production of purple under Israelite control – the only of its kind in the entire Levant discovered so far – which provided the prestigious and rare purple color to the kingdoms of the region and apparently also to the weaving of the sanctuary curtain of the Temple.

“The Tel Shikmona factory supplied purple products, mainly purple-dyed thread, to Cyprus and Lebanon and also to socio-political elites and temples in the cities of Judea, and of course to rich residents of the Kingdom of Israel.

Because it was the most active purple production factory and the closest to Jerusalem – and in fact the only one known to us from these periods – it was most likely the prestigious supplier of dyes for the Temple,” said University of Haifa archaeology Prof. Ayelet Gilboa and Dr. Golan Shalvi, a colleague who is an expert in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

Tel Shikmona has always been a mysterious site for archaeologists. It was a settlement corresponding to the period of the Judges, during the division of the kingdom until its destruction and that of Judea. Throughout the period it was a very small site, a total of about five dunams (a little over an acre, compared to the adjacent Byzantine period settlement that covers 100 dunams).

It is not near agricultural areas and the nearby sea coast is rocky and does not allow safe mooring or easy access to the sea, thus was not suitable for maritime trade.

About five years ago, Gilboa and Shalvi published a study that was a breakthrough regarding the understanding of the ancient settlement, based on a preliminary examination of Elgavish’s findings. These included pottery basins with remains of the purple color, together with many Phoenician ceramics. The two archaeologists claimed that the place was a Phoenician factory for the production of the rare and prestigious purple color of the time.

Although evidence was also found on the site that could be associated with the culture of the Kingdom of Israel at that time – mainly the wall of the enclosures and the houses of three spaces found on the site – the assessment that the secret of the scarlet was reserved for the Phoenician culture. Most of the findings they examined led them to conclude that the site belonged to the Phoenicians.

However, after several years of in-depth research into Elgavish’s findings and even after completing their new excavation in a limited area of the mound in recent weeks, Gilboa and Shalvi now present the full historical story of the mound during this period. The historical reconstruction suggests the Kingdom of Israel took over the Phoenician production site and turned it into the largest and most significant production site known in the Mediterranean basin.

The story of the bright purple-colored mound illuminates the heyday of the Kingdom of Israel in the period between the middle of the 9th century and the middle of the 8th century BCE. Shalvi said that the complete set of findings tells a more complex story than what may be understood at first glance.

“At the beginning of the Iron Age, in the 11th century BCE, Phoenicians settled and established a small site for the production of purple. During this period, the material culture is defined as Phoenician only, and local purple production takes place at the site in a limited scope,” he said.

At some point in the middle of the 9th century BCE, roughly at the same time as Ahab ascended the throne in the Kingdom of Israel, the factory was abandoned and possibly destroyed. A new complex was built over the ruins of the village, fortified with a retaining wall in the style characteristic of many fortified sites in the Kingdom of Israel during this period.

The ceramic finds, many everyday tools, and seals began to include Israelite characteristics along with Phoenician ones when there was evidence of much more scarlet production. The new insights make it possible to understand the unique and fascinating historical story of the site from a small Phoenician village producing scarlet to a fortified and planned factory, under Israelite control, with the Phoenicians remaining the expert craftsmen responsible for the production of scarlet.

Their new proposal is in line with the geopolitical changes at that time in the region – a period of prosperity for the Kingdom of Israel, during which Omri and his son Ahab expanded the Kingdom of Israel to the north and east through military conquests.

Shikmona and its treasures

“The finds at Tel Shikmona show that the tremendous economic potential of the production of the colors azure and purple induced the Kingdom of Israel to carry out conquest campaigns also towards the sea in the west and to take control of the source of the legendary wealth of the Phoenicians from producing purple,” the authors continued.

“Since the extraction of purple was a skill that required a deep familiarity with the sea, it is likely that the production remained in the hands of Phoenician workers, who worked under the regulation of the Kingdom of Israel. These conclusions can explain the unusual combination of Israeli and Phoenician material culture in those layers.”

The findings on the site continued to tell the story of the Kingdom of Israel until its decline: the rise of Yehu, the son of Yehoshafat, which probably led to the destruction of the factory. It was restored again and reached the peak of its power in terms of its size and the scope of scarlet production during the long reign of Jeroboam II (son of Yoash) in the first half of the eighth century BCE.

This was the last flourishing period in the Kingdom of Israel, in which its borders once again expanded, probably also to the nearby Acre Valley to the north of Tel Shikmona. The Israelite industrial enclosure complex was probably destroyed shortly after the death of Jeroboam II, around 740 BCE – a period that marks the beginning of the decline of the Kingdom of Israel.

Its destruction was attributed to internal conflicts that involved, among other things, frequent coups d’état and murders of kings. Scarlet production in Shikmona began on a large only in the first half of the seventh century BCE, after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel under Assyrian control.

“The story of the biblical Shikmona becomes many times more complex and fascinating than we thought at first,” the authors concluded. “This is the most significant scarlet production factory found to this day from that period, with a production volume that is orders of magnitude greater than any other known site.

“Beyond that, it tells the story of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Israel over the centuries, the economic interests of the kingdom, the westward expansion, and the complex relationship with the Phoenicians.”

Following the renewed research, a new excavation has begun at Tel Shikmona in a cooperative effort to restore the site and make it accessible to the public, by the Nature and Parks Authority, the university’s Zinman Institute of Archeology, Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research, and the Israel Antiquities Authority.