Roman snail dye found in UK for first time

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Rare Roman Dye Unearthed at Carlisle Cricket Club

In a remarkable archaeological discovery, a rare dye used by the Roman elite nearly 2,000 years ago has been unearthed at a cricket club in Carlisle, England. The chunk of Tyrian purple, roughly the size of a ping pong ball, was dug up during ongoing yearly excavations at the Carlisle Cricket Club.

The discovery is of “international significance,” according to lead archaeologist Frank Giecco, as it marks the first time this precious pigment has been found in the UK. The dye, which was worth more than gold, was used to color the robes and garments of the Roman imperial court and upper echelons of society.

Excavations at the site, which began in 2017, have yielded an impressive array of Roman artifacts, including pottery, weapons, coins, and semi-precious stones. In addition to the Tyrian purple find, the site has also produced other significant discoveries, such as a pair of Roman god sculptures dating back to around AD 200 and tiles bearing the stamp of third-century Emperor Septimius Severus.

The Tyrian purple dye was made from the glands of marine snails, with an estimated 12,000 snails required to produce less than 2 grams of the pigment. This labor-intensive process is what made the dye so valuable and exclusive to the Roman elite. The dye was mixed with beeswax to preserve it, and the chunk discovered at the Carlisle site was verified as genuine Tyrian purple after several months of chemical analysis.

Semi-precious gems were recovered from the drains at the site. These gems had likely fallen out of rings after the steam from the bathhouse loosened their glue settings.

The Carlisle site has been the focus of ongoing excavations by a team of volunteers, with the latest dig scheduled to take place from May 7 to June 17, 2023. The discoveries made at this site have provided invaluable insights into the Roman presence in the region and the lives of the empire’s most privileged citizens.

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