Incredibly Rare Tyrian Purple Discovered at Carlisle Archaeology Dig

Another very rare archaeological discovery has been unearthed at our Uncovering Roman Carlisle project. A mysterious lump of a soft purple substance was discovered at a Roman Bathhouse, within the grounds of Carlisle Cricket Club, during the 2023 excavation by our archaeologists and volunteers. The part of the drains it was discovered in related to a monumental building with a bathhouse built in the 3rd Century – during the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus.

The purple pigment was tested with the support of British Geological Society and further analysis is ongoing with Newcastle University. Experts from Newcastle University have now concluded that the pigment is organic and contained levels of Bromine and beeswax – this almost certainly indicates it is Tyrian Purple, the colour associated with the Imperial Court in the Roman Empire.

Frank Giecco, Technical Director at Wardell Armstrong, said: “For millennia, Tyrian Purple was the world’s most expensive and sought after colour. It’s presence in Carlisle combined with other evidence from the excavation all strengthens the hypothesis that the building was in some way associated with the Imperial Court of the Emperor Septimius Severus which was located in York and possibly relates to an Imperial visit to Carlisle.

“It’s the only example we know of in Northern Europe – possibly the only example of a solid sample of the pigment in the form of unused paint pigment anywhere in the Roman Empire. Examples have been found of it in wall paintings (like in Pompeii) and some high status painted coffins from the Roman province of Egypt.”

Tyrian Purple is made from thousands of crushed seashells from the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, or Morrocco. It was phenomenally difficult to make and expensive and was worth more than gold pound for pound (three times as much in some sources).

We are proud to have led several community excavations and won numerous awards since our archaeologists made the Bathhouse’s initial discovery at Carlisle Cricket Club in 2017. The project delivered in partnership with Tullie, Carlisle City Council, Wardell Armstrong and Carlisle Cricket Club.

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