Ancient Greek Settlement With Purple-Producing Shells and Carved Fish Tanks Discovered on Tiny Island

Archaeologists excavating a Minoan settlement have found the discarded remains of Hexaplex trunculus shells, used in the production of the color purple—as well as gold jewelry and copper vases.

The discoveries were made at a location to the west of Chryssi, a small island near Crete, where ancient carved fish tanks can still be found preserved on the beach.

According to the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports, the site, a large multi-room dwelling, would have been involved in the craft production of Tyrian (or "royal) purple dye, an extremely expensive and highly prized commodity, in the Late Minoan period circa 1800 to 1500 BCE.

Minoan settlement
Archaeologists excavating a Minoan settlement at a location to the west of Chryssi Island, near Crete, have found the discarded remains of Hexaplex trunculus shells, used in the production of the color purple. Pictured: site of the excavation. Greek Ministry of Culture

In addition to the large quantities of shells found at the site, archaeologists unearthed a treasure trove of valuable objects, including a gold ring, a gold bracelet and dozens of beads made from gold, silver, bronze and maple. Three copper vases, handfuls of glass beads made from amethyst, lapis, corneal stone and "Egyptian blue," and one seal made of agate were also found during the excavation.

These artefacts, the researchers say, suggests the settlement had once had a flourishing economy, despite the rather simple architecture of the building. The inhabitants would have been of a high social level and involved in purple trade, they say.

copper vase
A copper vase found at the site. Greek Ministry of Culture

The history of the color purple

Recently, research has confirmed the production of various dyes in Crete during the Minoan period, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology reports.

Faded fresco painting hints that Minoans, named after the legendary Greek King Minos, wore brightly colored garments and samples of ancient dye found in pottery appears to confirm this, suggesting several vibrant dyes were being produced at the time, including yellow dye from the plant Reseda lutiola and red dye from the plant Rubia tinctorum.

Purple would have been particularly prized by the Minoans (as it has been in several societies since) for its expense and the amount of time it would have taken to produce. According to Robert R. Stieglitz, author of The Minoan Origin of Tyrian Purple, purple was "the most expensive dye in the ancient world."

The dye was highly coveted in spite of its slightly icky origins—sea snail mucus. Hexaplex trunculus is a medium-sized sea snail (or mollusk) that produced an intensely colored secretion, which (when oxidized, added to water and heated) creates a brilliant purple dye.

According to the first-hand accounts of Aristotle and Pliny, to make the color purple, the creature is crushed and its gland extracted. Each extraction only provides a few drops of secretion, making the production of purple dye an expensive and industrial process.

gold beads
A collection of gold beads found at the site Greek Ministry of Culture