On this deserted Greek island, archeologists are unearthing a unique industrial town where craftsmen dyed expensive fabrics a brilliant crimson for sale to Roman emperors.
The excavation casts new light on an ancient Mediterranean textile industry known as the “purple trade,” which flourished on Koufonissi in the first and second centuries.
The trade was based on the murex shell, a spiny sea snail that yielded a red dye prized by the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans.
“Koufonissi is a highly unusual site. It was both a sophisticated Roman town on a remote island and an industrial center where families processed murex in their well-appointed homes,” said Nikos Papadakis, the government antiquities service archeologist directing the dig.
Although murex shells have been found at several Mediterranean excavations, the site on Koufonissi is the first where extensive dyeing installations have been unearthed. Millions of murex shells litter the Roman town.
“The island was one of several places, like Tyre in Lebanon, where techniques were developed for extracting a gland containing the dye from the murex shell and fashioning strikingly bright colors,” said Papadakis, who started the excavation 10 years ago.
Koufonissi, a sandy, low-lying, 1 1/2-square-mile island, lies three miles south of the Aegean island of Crete. It is inhabited now by rare birds, hares and rats.
Experts believe the valuable red dye was first extracted by the island’s Minoan inhabitants in the Bronze Age, around 2,000 BC.
“The Minoans simply crushed the shells wholesale. By the Roman period, the islanders were using a variety of skills for extracting and processing the dye,” Papadakis said.
Amenities of Prosperity
Under the Roman emperors, Crete was the capital of a province that also included modern Libya. The island flourished as a way station on the trade routes from Rome to Egypt and Asia Minor.
Koufonissi acquired an imposing cliff-top temple, a piped water system, public baths, elegant mansions decorated with mosaic floors and an open-air amphitheater that seated about 1,000 people.
“The island had the amenities of prosperous, middle-class Roman life. Finds of murex inside household workshop areas suggest the purple industry was carried on by individual families,” Papadakis said.
Ancient authors recount how murex shells were fished in spring and fall and kept alive until sufficient quantities of dye could be manufactured. Each shell produced only a few drops.
Purple a Misnomer
The milky fluid was mixed with salt water and vinegar, exposed to sunlight to deepen the dye from yellow to crimson and boiled for a more vivid hue. Hyacinth flowers gave a mauve or purple tint.
“Purple is really a misnomer for the color associated with Roman emperors. In fact, they favored a deep crimson, and that color fabric, in silk or wool, was worth its weight in silver,” Papadakis said.
The crimson cloth was considered so valuable that the emperor Nero banned commoners from wearing it.
But later, the dye was used for bed linens and rugs. Cheaper colors, diluted with urine and plant extracts, grew popular in Egypt.
Town Was Destroyed
Koufonissi’s prosperity provoked rival claims on the island by the quarreling Cretan cities of Itanos and Ierapetra in the 2nd Century. An Egyptian garrison was installed there to protect the purple industry.
“Apart from murex, Koufonissi appears to have been a sponge-fishing and salt-producing center. It also produced a fish, the skaros, regarded as a great delicacy by the Romans,” Papadakis said.