CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
April’s Ugly object isn’t an object per-se. It’s a specimen – a shell – and it was excavated at Karanis during the 1924-25 field season. It’s rather small and unprepossessing. But to me this shell is a thing of beauty. Why? It is a murex shell, and was once the likely carrier of shellfish purple (or Tyrian purple), one of the most valuable dyes in antiquity. Pliny wrote at length of the Roman passion for purple, and described in detail the extraction and processing of the color from a gland found in the throat of the snail. The dye produced a range of purples from magenta to purple-black. One can imagine the vast numbers of snails that would have been needed for a dye vat large enough to color the yards and yards of textile used in the elite fashion industry of Rome. Pliny cites an observation by the 1st century BC biographer Cornelius Nepos that a pound of dye would have sold for 100 denarii – about half of the annual salary of a professional soldier. This was some seriously valuable stuff.
Tyrian purple, like many other natural colorants, has now been chemically synthesized. We can buy a shirt or sweater in purple or any other color today at very little expense, which makes it hard to relate to the craze that drove people to seek out the murex snail on Mediterranean beaches. I can’t think of a color today that screams ‘bling’ the way purple did in the ancient Roman world. Can you?
You can spot the murex shell in the Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn wing.
References to the text of Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Historia Naturalis) Book IX, Chapter 63 are from a translation by John Bostock, M.D. London: George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden. 1890.