Date of this Version
Shellfish purple, known also as ‘murex’, is a dye obtained from molluscs and it has long been associated primarily with Central American textiles. It is also a very ancient dye in Japan but it is less well known. The earliest evidence is from the Yoshinogari site which dates to circa 100 BCE, where a shell bracelet shows traces of shellfish purple pigment. This archaeological find is particularly important because in all of East Asia there has been little other evidence of ancient shellfish purple dye.
Several years ago I was asked to investigate the dye. My project was to research various species of snails and to prepare dye samples to give an indication of the actual color results from shellfish purple. My experimentation involved worldwide species as well as Japanese snails. I have confirmed that there are 2,000 species of the Muricidae family, of which approximately 600 species are found in East Asia. Approximately 200 of these snails can be used to make a purple dye. The focus of this present research is Rapona venosa, a fairly large molluscs which is common in Japan and therefore easy to collect and use.
Since the discovery of shellfish purple at the Yoshinogari site, I have been working on the best method for dye extraction and preparation. This paper will discuss the murex technique I have developed. I will also show how I used the dye in a commission to prepare vestments for the Bishop of Nagasaki.