The most prestigious pigment of the ancient world was actually made from a predatory sea snail. The dye is extracted from Murex brandaris, a mollusc native to Tyre in Phoenicia, now modern Lebanon, its production going back at least to 1500 BC.
In Greek legend it was discovered by Hercules, who, seeing the purple-stained mouth of his dog, realized it came from the shell sh the dog had just chewed.
Each shell sh yielded just one drop, an ounce of the dye required the sacri ce of around 250,000 shell sh. The putrid stench of thousands of decomposing snails meant that its manufacture was banished to the edge of town, the resulting shell piles of the Phoenicians still litter the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.
In the Ancient World it was strictly reserved for those of high rank. But in Imperial Rome prohibitive rules became so severe that only the emperor might wear ‘the true purple’ and extreme penalties were imposed for those not sanctioned to own purple garments.
It is also now believed that the blue Tekhelet of the Tallit prayer shawl, its recipe lost to Judaism since the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, derives from a similar source with the same method of production.
The method of preparing Tyrian purple was also lost to Western civilsation after the fall of Constantinople during the Crusades of 1204, until involved investiga- tion lead to it’s rediscovery in 1904.