A Rare Roman-Era Artifact Made From Sea Snails Was Discovered In Northern England

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At an archaeological site in the United Kingdom, an extraordinarily rare object made out of a once-valuable purple substance from the Roman era was discovered.

Archaeologists unearthed the artifact during excavations in 2023 at a Roman bathhouse in the city of Carlisle, which is located in northern England.

After testing the object’s soft, purple substance, they found that it contained beeswax and bromine. This indicated that the object was made from Tyrian purple, a pigment that was considered to be of high value in ancient times.

The dye is created from several species of predatory sea snails that inhabit the Mediterranean region.

The process of making Tyrian purple was extremely challenging and time-consuming work. Thousands of marine snails had to be collected, and experts estimate that up to 12,000 individual mollusks were needed to produce just one gram of dye.

So, of course, the pigment was expensive. In fact, it was even worth more than gold. Only the wealthiest members of society were able to afford it.

According to Frank Giecco, an archaeologist involved with the excavations at the site in Carlisle, finding an intact sample of Tyrian purple is quite unusual.

“It’s 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,” Giecco said. “Examples have been found of it in wall paintings (like in Pompeii), and also some high status painted coffins from the Roman province of Egypt.”

It is thought that Tyrian purple was first manufactured in the 2nd millennium by the ancient Phoenicians, a civilization of the Mediterranean region that occupied the area now known as Lebanon.

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