Vintage Tech: Tyrian Purple

Snail mucus, “mauve measles,” Napoleon’s crypt, the wisdom of ancient Mixtecs

It’s sometimes easy to forget that our technologically complex world wasn’t created out of whole cloth. Or that it wasn’t always here. Without an awareness of the past, “the sense of time falls in upon itself,” writes Lewis Lapham, “collapsing like an accordion into the evangelical present.”

Vintage Tech,” a column by B. Alexandra Szerlip, will examine some of the under-the-radar stories, personalities and techniques that inform our 21st century lives.

Today is Habacuc Avedano’s 78th birthday. Seated in the dirt courtyard that separates his two-story cinderblock home from the outdoor, wood-burning kitchen, he recalls the first time his uncle introduced him to caracol purpura. Habacuc was fifteen. It was the start of his apprenticeship as a tintorero.

In 1956, getting from Pinotepa de Don Luis to the small fishing village of Puerto Angel, on Oaxaca’s southernmost coast, required an eight-day walk, crossing the occasional river by canoe, and stepping over miles of remote, rocky coastline. The harvesting trips, which always took place during the dry season to allow for camping out, lasted two to three months. Habacuc, his uncle and several other locals carried as many tortillas, and as much beans and coffee, as they could manage, along with large skeins of native cotton thread hand-spun on drop spindles by their wives, daughters and neighbors.

“When the food ran out, we hired ourselves out as local day laborers, bought more supplies with the money we saved, then returned to our own work.”

Murex purpura snails live in secluded coves in intertidal zones along the Pacific shoreline, wedged between large, craggy boulders. Barefoot, carrying thread skeins and a wooden prying stick (less invasive than metal), young Habacuc learned how to balance himself against crashing waves and the occasional swooping heron. There was only a three-hour “window” each day, when the tide was low, but even then, the work was dangerous. Over the centuries, the sea had claimed many a Mixtec “snailer” who didn’t know enough about currents or weather, wasn’t sure-footed enough, or was simply unlucky. Given the harsh remoteness of the area, a broken leg or ankle was something to be dreaded. “You have to hang on for dear life. Those that died, we buried them there.”

A rooster, strutting and crowing at Don Habacuc’s feet, momentarily interrupts his story.

He learned how to loosen a mollusk’s tenacious grip, then press on the exposed belly with his thumb. After urinating in defense against the intrusion, snails release a milky, garlic-y scum that, pressed onto the cotton thread, changes, within minutes when exposed to bright sunlight, from yellow to green to blue, and finally to vibrant purple.

A miraculously colorfast purple that requires no mordant to “develop.”

Dying one twelve-ounce skein requires as many as 400 snails.

“Back then, we could dye four large skeins in a day, at least two dozen over the course of a trip. Last year, we went for eight days and only brought back three.”

Royal, imperial or Tyrian purple (named for the Phoencian city of Tyre, in present-day Lebanon) can be traced back at least 3,000 years. King Darius the Great of Persia (521-486 BCE) wore snail-dyed garments. Snail-dyed cloth is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid (“the cloak aglow with Tyrian dye upon his shoulders….”). Plato extolled its beauty and luster.

There are several types of dye-producing shellfish. It turns out that the mollusks of southern Mexico are the lucky ones; after being “milked,” as Habacuc learned to do, they can be reattached to the rocks without harm. Their less cooperative Mediterranean cousins were martyred in the name of fashion—crushed for their hypobranchial glands, which were removed, fermented and boiled (by all accounts, a nasty, smelly business) in ceramic vats. Long stretches of ancient smashed shells, several yards thick, still line Tyre’s beaches today.

Death toll estimates vary. One claims that a wool cloak belonging to King Herod (73-4 B.C.) required the demise of 10,000 mollusks; another that 12,000 yielded no more than 1.4 grams, enough to color only the trim of a single garment; still another puts the carnage for one ounce of useable dye at 250,000.

In any case, the number of snails required to create Cleopatra’s legendary (if true) purple sails would, alone, have sufficed to nearly exterminate the genus.

There’s a difference between pigment and dye. According to scholars, the former (insoluble), used to color Bronze Age murals and the tomb of Ramses III, predated the invention of the latter (water soluble) by the better part of a millennium. Clothing throughout much of human history leaned heavily toward white, beige, gray, brown and black (think: Game of Thrones). A bright purple garment was nothing short of spectacular. Even more so when trimmed with gold thread.

When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian city of Shushan in 331 B.C., he found some 55 pounds of Grecian-made, snail-dyed tribute cloth in the treasury; despite having been stored there for nearly 200 years, its color remained vibrant and fresh.

Shell-dyed cloth was the most expensive of all antiquity goods, rivaling pearls, rubies and emeralds. One pound of the finest quality was worth 150,000 denarii, a lifetime’s worth of wages if you happened to be a stonecutter who didn’t take off weekends or holidays.

Fashion being notoriously fickle, the shades of royal purple varied over time; snail dye was sometimes mixed with kermes to produce redder purples, with indigo or oak gall to create a blackish hue Pliny the Elder described as resembling “congealed blood.” Ever the spoilsport, Pliny equated snail-derived purple with “moral corruption,” anticipating The New Testament’s whore of Babylon (her purples and scarlets too self-aggrandizing for good Christians).

Woven with wefts of an alternate color, Tyrian purple could even be made to shimmer. “Murex sacerado randus,” (the holy purple mollusk must be worshipped), declared Theodosius the Great.

As with Gucci purses and Rolex watches, “fakes” inevitably followed. A Greek papyrus circa 200 B.C. contains seventy recipes for faux purple. It wasn’t unknown for buyers in the ancient Nile delta to insist on tasting the fabric in question to determine if it was genuine murex or merely madder (red) over-dyed with woad (blue).

Given its rarity, luster and expense, sumptuary laws were passed declaring the color the exclusive province of the rich and powerful—from toga-clad senators (allowed a single stripe) and triumphant generals to Caesars, one of whom claimed that even he couldn’t afford a purple gown for his wife. Nero (37-68 A.D.) and Caligula (12-41 A.D.) reputedly had outliers killed for sporting a defiant violet sash or ribbon. Fast forward a millennium and a half, when Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, was tried for high treason against Henry VIII. Part of the evidence against him was that he’d been spotted galavanting about in purple, which only Britain’s king could wear.

Charlemagne’s silk shroud. A four-horse chariot depicted in gold and Tyrian purple.

Around 14 A.D., a purple marble was discovered, sourced from a single mountain in Egypt. Tiberius quickly established a quarry there; future Roman emperors were crowned standing on a large porphyry circle built into the center of the Pantheon’s floor. Thanks to porphyry, being “of the purple born” went beyond mere metaphor. Justinian’s Great Palace in Constantinople contained a special room where Empresses gave birth, lined top to bottom with the stuff. Justinian, who went so far as to commission ‘double-dyed’ purple for both his wardrobe and household decor, had eight enormous “imperial porphyry” pillars installed in Hagia Sophia, where they remain today. Just as the wearing of purple announced regal status, the technology required to cut and shape this extremely dense and heavy purple stone, let alone with precision, proclaimed to any contenders the Romans’ god-like skills.

Purple’s status extended into the afterlife. Charlemagne (d. 814 A.D.) was buried in a murex-dyed shroud. Centuries later, Napoleon Bonaparte pined for an “imperial purple” porphyry tomb, but his envoys failed to find the ancient quarry; he had to settle for red. Bad timing. The quarry was located, two years later, by a British Egyptologist.

Mauve, the first synthetic dye, was discovered accidentally in 1856, making “purple” available to all.

Mediterranean snail dye production disappeared, along with the secrets of its manufacture, in 1453, when the Turks (who thought purple unlucky) kicked the Romans out of Byzantium. Those secrets remained “lost” for four centuries, until their inadvertent rediscovery, in 1856, by French marine biologist Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers.

As things turned out, 1856 was also the year that an 18-year-old British chemist, attempting to synthesize quinine from coal tar (malaria was raging and quinine, the only known treatment, was prohibitively expensive), accidentally invented “mauve.”

His experiments left his beakers with a dirty brown sludge. When he attempted to clean them out with alcohol, the sludge turned a rich, bright fuchsia. And voila! The first synthetic, wash-resistant dye. It took awhile to catch on, but when Empress Eugenie, fashion-icon wife of Napoleon 111, decided that mauve matched her eyes, Queen Victoria took note, commissioning a mauve velvet dress (with matching petticoat). Within a year, London was in the grip of “mauve measles.”

Young Perkin got very rich, very fast, coal tar was soon the source of a range of bright, dazzling, synthetic (aniline) colors (including Perkin’s Green), and Lacaze-Duthiers’ discovery became a footnote, largely ignored.

The Mixtec of Oaxaca discovered the gift of caracol purpura for themselves, independent of the Old World, some thousand years ago, centuries before the arrival of the conquistadors. They named the dye tixinda (snail purple).

Until quite recently, no one, least of all Mexican nationals (who are, by definition, a mix of Spanish and ‘Indian’ blood), was inclined to look to Mexico’s indigenous cultures for historical or aesthetic clues about anything. (Diego Rivera often complained that Americanos, both north and south, looked to Europe for “culture,” ignoring their own hemisphere entirely.)

Those native to the “hot, damp country bordering the ocean… are little more than a bundle of instincts on two legs,” proclaimed The World, Its Cities and Peoples (Cassell & Company, Limited, London, Paris, New York & Melbourne, 1888), a much-reprinted, nine-volume compendium boasting gold-embossed covers. The natives of Oaxaca are, it continued, “a poor, spiritless race whose chief ambition in life is to get drunk… The priests did their best, but the passive resistance of the Indians wore their patience out…”

“The Mixtecs developed what may be the earliest known example of aquaculture,“ notes cultural anthropologist Marta Turok. They knew that tixinda was designed, by nature, to immobilize both predators and potential food sources (it paralyzes the nervous system of marine invertebrates). They could differentiate between males and females and knew that the best time for collection was October-through-March, when the snails breed and reproduce. They recognized that three centimeters was the minimum size for harvesting sustainably, and that during periods of the full moon, the most, and best color-quality, “ink” is produced.

Perhaps most importantly, they knew that caracol purpura could be “milked,” then re-attached, unharmed, in a damp, shady place between the rocks, and that after 28 days (one moon cycle), they would replenish themselves, have enough “ink” for their own needs, and could be milked again. That treated with kindness, the mollusks lived to the ripe old age of 25 or 30.

The Mixtecs’ isolation, “low” cultural profile, and innate understanding of textiles as cultural identity, insured that what had been “lost” in the Old World remained viable in the New, and that Oaxaca’s mollusks were spared the fate of their Mediterranean cousins.

That is, until the arrival of Imperial Purple, Inc., a manufacturer of wedding kimonos. Japan, too, has a history of purple lust dating back centuries; in their case, the color was created from the roots of a gromwell plant that’s both hard to grow and difficult to process.

Between 1981 and 1984—thanks to a newly paved coastal highway and the Mexican government’s approval—Imperial Purple Inc. nearly stripped the Oaxacan coastline of purpura. Local fishermen, hired to dye cotton and silk thread, harvested year round, scooping up juveniles and adults alike, destroying tens of thousands.

Finding their old dyeing grounds depleted or barren, Pinotepa’s tintoreros organized, for the first time, and presented a formal complaint to the president of the Republic, arguing that a cultural patrimony—both the dye and a way of life—was being destroyed. Turok, who coined the phrase “Act locally, think globally,” helped establish a habitat preserve and educate local fishermen about sustainability. In 1988, against the odds, Caracol Purpura fell under federal protection.

Mauro Habacuc Avendano Luis heads the Cooperativa de Tintoreros de Pinotepa Don Luis. These thirteen men, including Habacuc’s son, Rafael, who hopes to pass the harvesting tradition on to his five-year-old, constitute the last people on earth licensed to harvest this legendary snail.

Two years ago, an Israeli chemist flew to Pinotepa to meet with them. After a career running tests on Phoenician dye vats and textile remnants, the chemist had discovered (with help from a rabbi and a scuba-diving physicist) the long-lost secret of tekhelet—the arresting, sapphire-like blue, mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament, that colored the knotted tassels of ancient Jewish prayer shawls.

The secret turned out to be—surprise!—snail mucus, dissolved in an alkaline solution that halts the chemical transformation between green and purple. “Now I can die happy,” the chemist told his hosts, having been shown the Mixtec “milking” method, “knowing that the snails are being taken care of.”

A vintage huipil dyed with indigo and tixinda.

The tintoreros are less optimistic. Despite federal protection and the support of people like Turok and Patrice Perille (founder of a cooperative that promotes the work of Mixtec weavers), Oaxaca’s purpura population continues to dwindle.

For every batch of 200,000 larvae produced by a female snail, only 2,000 manage to survive and grow. Un-licensed locals continue to harvest the snails (wearing rubber gloves to avoid telltale purple stains) to sell to restaurants, where they’re served up in seafood cocktails. (Some Mexicans consider them an aphrodisiac, never a good omen when it comes to non-human species longevity.) Plus, the mollusks’ own food source—a marine creature known as lengua de perro—is also a popular comestible. And then there’s the issue of rising coastal sea temperatures; thirty-eight of 59 mollusk species once common in the Mediterranean have already vanished as a result.

“If things stay at their present level, they will survive,” Habacuc allows. “If not, not.” Meanwhile the weavers, who’ve obtained tixinda-dyed thread from the tintoreros for centuries, use it more and more sparingly in their designs.

Does it matter in the grand scheme of things, goes the argument, if giraffes or spotted owls, human languages (half slated to disappear in this century) or, in the case of murex purpura, an extant technology that pre-dates the founding of Athens—go extinct?

It could also be argued that diversity matters, that cultural traditions embody human history, that as life becomes more and more homogenized, it becomes less and less rich. That the patrimony of Oaxaca’s “snailers” and weavers isn’t simply theirs.

Eighty percent of Pinotepia’s population are indigenous Mixtecs whose main source of income is subsistence farming. Purpura harvesting has always been a labor of love—a messy, time-consuming and physically dangerous business with a seemingly absurd ratio of effort-to-reward—in which Habacuc, a portly 78, continues to actively participate. The one substantial change from “the old days” is that, thanks to the coastal highway, the eight-day trek has been replaced by a five-hour bus ride.

There are other ways of thinking and interacting with the earth, other choices beyond our own particular cultural paradigms, notes cultural anthropologist Wade Davis. “This is an idea that can only fill us with hope.” Don Habacuc’s gray, cinderblock home is typical of the region, except for one thing. Its exterior is painted a vibrant purple. Seated in the courtyard on his birthday, surrounded by three generations of family, the Cooperativa de Tintoreros’ spokesperson and driving force explains his persistence this way: “We are,” he says simply, “what we do.”

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