Ancient Color

Ancient Color

Creating Using Investigating

Purple Pigments

Tyrian purple

Sea snail
Murex snail shell
  • What is it made of? Tyrian purple is produced from the mucus gland (called the hypobranchial gland) of predatory sea snails found all over the Mediterranean Sea. There are several different types of these snails, but they all come from the Muricidae family of marine molluscs.
  • Where does it come from? Tyrian purple dye was first manufactured by the Phoenicians in the 16th century BCE. It is named after either the Phoenician city of Tyre or the nymph Tyros, for whom the dye was first used. In the Roman period, Tyrian purple dye was made all along the Mediterranean coast, from Spain to Lebanon and Italy to North Africa.
  • How is it made? Tyrian purple dye is challenging to produce. According to Pliny the Elder, it took thousands of snails to produce one ounce of dye. Once the snails were harvested from the sea, the mucus glands were removed and placed in a lead pot filled with brine. The pot was then slowly heated for about ten days until the mixture turned a reddish-purple color. It was a long and smelly process.
  • Fun fact! Purple was an expensive and exclusive color. In 1st-century CE Rome, a pound of Tyrian purple dye cost 100 denarii. That was about half a Roman soldier’s annual salary, or the equivalent of a diamond engagement ring today.

Mixing purple

  • How is it made? Sometimes blue, pink, and red pigments, including Egyptian blue, red earth, and rose madder, were combined to create the color purple. This would have been a much more affordable alternative to Tyrian purple.
Bolinus brandaris snail Close×
Bolinus brandaris snail. Photo: Holger Krisp.
A Roman with a purple stripe on his toga. Close×
A Roman in a toga praetexta from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii, 1st century CE. Note the purple stripe on his toga. Photo: Patricio Lorente.