Abstract

Ancient writers left detailed accounts about the Roman-period murex dye market. These descriptions and recipes reveal what Romans preferred by way of ingredients, pigment extraction methods, and mixtures. These accounts also highlight how dyes were marketed and received by consumers. The best-quality dyes are described as “true” purple (e.g., Tyrian), and these were juxtaposed with imitation dyes also sold. Critical facts about manufacturing these dyes were not addressed: the specific ingredients, measures, and modes used for making dyes of either quality. Archaeochemical studies analyzing Roman murex-dyed textiles rarely pick up on this data limitation. As a result, the vast majority of chemically analyzed murex-dyed textiles are published as evidence for the true-dye industry. This article argues such claims are unfounded. By combining both textual and archaeological evidence, it characterizes precisely what textile chromatograms can reveal: nuance, complication, and the spectrum of purple ancient Romans would have seen.

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