29 May 2018

OUT OF THE BLUE: New Exhibit on Tekhelet at Bible Lands Museum

New Exhibit at Jerusalem Bible Lands Museum, June 1

Woolen fleeces dyed in different colors with dye extracted from Murex trunculus snails (courtesy of Ptil Tekhelet/Moshe Caine)

Long sought by Jews to revive the ancient practice of wearing a fringe of techelet, the revered colors were also the subject of other Ancient Near East cultures’ fascination and ritual worship and the source of a hugely prosperous ancient dyeing industry, according to a new exhibit at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, “Out of the Blue,” which is set to open on June 1.

The exhibit spotlights the lure of the blue stone lapis lazuli for ancient Egypt (spurring the production of the first imitation blue dyes), Caanan, and Mesopotamia, featuring ritual items and jewelry, including a rare lapis lazuli-dotted horned crown of a Mesopotamian deity.

It pivots into the lucrative purple dye industry of the ancient Phoenicians, drawn from snails (their name meaning the “purple people”); points to the proud adoption of the shade by Persian and Roman royals; underlines finds linking the elusive techelet and argaman with the Murex trunculus shellfish and notes Jewish scholarly efforts to revive the pigment based on a cryptic Talmudic description of the hilazon snail that produces the sacred ink.

Set to be exhibited for the first time, for example, are punctured, ancient Murex trunculus snail shells, excavated at the Tel Shikmona site in northern Israel and dating back to the 10th-7th centuries BCE, according to a curator at the museum, Yehuda Kaplan.

“And you can see that for some of them, there is a breach in the shell,” he said during a tour of the exhibit. It was from those holes that a gland from the snail was extracted, the source of the rich dyes, with each yielding only a “minuscule” amount of the rare and highly coveted pigment, according to the museum. For a single kilogram of dye, thousands or even tens of thousands of the snails were needed.

“These snails, the Murex trunculus, probably about 4,000 years ago it was discovered that they could produce magnificent dyes with the most beautiful colors, dyes that were fast on wool, never faded. And that was something in the ancient world that was simply unheard of, it was priceless,” said Dr. Baruch Sterman of the Ptil Tekhelet organization, which produces techelet fringes to revive the Jewish commandment, and co-author of a book on the subject, “The Rarest Blue.”

In a showcase nearby are coins minted in the Phoenician city of Tyre, now southern Lebanon, in which snail shells — its “trademark” — are featured, further bolstering the link between the creature (still found on Israel’s shores) and the purple dye.

City Cloud of Tekhelet Wearers in Israel

Excerpts from timesofisrael

More on Techelet:

Ptil Tekhelet

Techelet Factory Tour

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