Rare Chunk Of Tyrian Purple, The Prized Pigment Used To Dye The Robes Of Roman Royalty, Unearthed In England

Published May 6, 2024

This discovery marks the first time that Tyrian Purple dye, an expensive pigment reserved for Roman elites, has been found in Northern Europe.

Tyrian Purple Dye

Frank GieccoThis rare dye known as Tyrian Purple was once considered to be more valuable than gold.

During ongoing excavations on the grounds of the Carlisle Cricket Club in Carlisle, England, archaeologists came across a small, soft lump in the earth. It didn’t look like much at first. But they’ve just determined that it’s actually a chunk of Tyrian Purple dye — a rare pigment once used to color the robes of the highest echelon of Roman society.

Hundreds of years ago, Tyrian Purple was considered more valuable than gold.

The Discovery Of The Tyrian Purple In Carlisle

Excavations In Carlisle

Uncovering Roman CarlisleArchaeologists at work in Carlisle, where a number of stunning Roman objects have been found.

Last October, archaeologists with the Uncovering Roman Carlisle project came across a “mysterious lump of a soft purple substance” while excavating a former Roman bathhouse near the Carlisle Cricket Club.

According to Wardell Armstrong, an environmental, engineering, and mining company that led the dig, the substance was then tested by the British Geological Society. They determined that it contained levels of Bromine and beeswax, suggesting that it was a chunk of “very rare” Tyrian Purple dye.

“For millennia, Tyrian Purple was the world’s most expensive and sought after color,” Frank Giecco, Technical Director at Wardell Armstrong, explained in a press release about the find.

Tyrian Purple was long used by kings and emperors, including Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. Roman senators also draped themselves in purple, as did Roman emperors. The dye was often used in clothing, but also to paint the walls of public buildings and the homes of Roman elites.

Tyrian Purple Robes

Public DomainA portrait of sixth-century Empress Theodora wearing a robe in Tyrian Purple.

The chunk of Tyrian Purple found in Carlisle, Giecco noted, “is the only example we know of in Northern Europe – possibly the only example of a solid sample of the pigment in the form of unused paint pigment anywhere in the Roman Empire.”

The dye was “phenomenally difficult” to make. It’s extracted from marine snails, but more than 10,000 had to be crushed in order to produce just two grams of pigment. As such, it was “worth more than gold pound for pound (three times as much in some sources),” per Wardell Armstrong.

Indeed, the dye is just one piece of a larger archaeological puzzle. Archaeologists have been excavating the grounds of the Carlisle Cricket Club since 2017, and have found a number of Roman objects there.

Other Roman Treasures Unearthed At The Carlisle Cricket Club

In 2017, archaeologists discovered a Roman bathhouse on the grounds of the Carlisle Cricket Club, launching an excavation project that has endured over the last couple of years — and yielded a number of impressive discoveries.

These finds include huge sandstone heads of Roman gods which once formed part of a 15-foot high sculpture, figurines, animal bones, imperial-stamped tiles, and gems which fell out of rings after they were loosened by the bathhouse steam.

Gems From Roman Bathhouse

Anna GieccoThese semi-precious gems slipped off of rings after they were loosened by the bathhouse steam.

Finds like these, and the Tyrian Purple, suggest that the bathhouse and the Roman fort nearby were linked somehow to the third-century emperor Septimius Severus.

According to Giecco, they “strengthens the hypothesis that the building was in some way associated with the Imperial Court of the Emperor Septimius Severus… and possibly relates to an Imperial visit to Carlisle.”

Archaeologists are eager to continue to excavate the area and learn more while uncovering further treasures from ancient Rome.

After reading about the rare chunk of Tyrian Purple discovered at the Carlisle Cricket Club in England, learn about Baiae, the sunken party town of ancient Rome. Then, discover the story of Caligula, the infamous Roman ruler believed to be insane.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Rare Chunk Of Tyrian Purple, The Prized Pigment Used To Dye The Robes Of Roman Royalty, Unearthed In England." AllThatsInteresting.com, May 6, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/tyrian-purple-carlisle-england. Accessed May 23, 2024.