An 'incredibly rare' ancient purple pigment was once worth more than gold found in the UK

Archaeologists working in England have discovered a 'mysterious nugget' of purple material that was worth more in Roman times than gold, researchers report. He said in a press release.

The researchers who found the “soft purple substance” are working on an investigation that will continue for years Roman remains In Carlisle, England, a cathedral city in the center of the country. The drilling operation is being led by Wardell Armstrong, a UK-based environmental, engineering and mining company

The material was found during excavations at a Roman bath in 2023. The remains of the 3rd-century building lie on the grounds of what is now a cricket club, according to the press release.

The team worked with the British Geological Society to test the material. Experts from Newcastle University provided further analysis and determined it was an organic dye containing levels of bromine and beeswax, according to the statement.

Tyrian purple pigment.

Wardell Armstrong

These components allowed researchers to identify the material as “purple of Tyr,” the color that the Roman Empire associated with its imperial court. The pigment is made from thousands of crushed seashells from the Mediterranean, North Africa and Morocco, according to the statement, and was “extremely difficult” to manufacture and expensive to produce, making it worth more than gold at the time.

The discovery of the material has led researchers to believe that the building being excavated was associated with the court and may have meant that the Roman Emperor of the time, Septimius Severus, had visited Carlisle. Frank Gecko, technical director of the organization leading the excavation project, said it was an “extremely rare” discovery, especially in Europe.

“It is the only example we know of in northern Europe — and perhaps the only example of a solid sample of pigment in the form of a paint pigment not used anywhere in the Roman Empire,” Gekko said in the statement. “Examples of it are found in frescoes (such as at Pompeii) and some high-status painted sarcophagi from the Roman province of Egypt.”

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