A significant archaeological discovery was made during the 2023 excavation at the site of an ancient Roman bathhouse in Carlisle, England. The dig, conducted by the Wardell Armstrong company, unearthed a small, mysterious piece of purple-colored substance, which later was identified as a fragment of Tyrian purple—the highly prized pigment once associated with Roman emperors.

The discovery was made within the grounds of the Carlisle Cricket Club, part of the historic Luguvalium Roman settlement. This particular site dates back to the 3rd century during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus. It was found in the drainage section of a monumental structure believed to be a Roman bathhouse.

Tyrian purple, also known as “imperial purple”, was an exceptionally valuable dye during Roman times, with its deep, vibrant hue symbolizing wealth, status, and imperial authority. It was produced from thousands of crushed sea snails (Bolinus brandaris) from the Mediterranean, requiring vast resources and labor-intensive processes to create even small quantities. This rarity and exclusivity meant that it was more valuable than gold, sometimes up to three times as much by weight.

Carlisle is the ancient Roman Luguvalium
Carlisle is the ancient Roman Luguvalium. Credit: Neil Boothman / Wikimedia Commons

After its discovery, the pigment was analyzed with the help of the British Geological Society and further examined by experts at the University of Newcastle. The analysis revealed that the pigment contained high levels of bromine and beeswax, confirming with near certainty that it was indeed Tyrian purple. This is a significant finding, as Tyrian purple is rarely found in its solid form, with previous discoveries typically in the form of paint on murals or high-status coffins, like those found in Roman Egypt and Pompeii.

Frank Giecco, Technical Director at Wardell Armstrong, remarked on the importance of this find, stating, During millennia, Tyrian purple was the most expensive and coveted color in the world. Its presence in Carlisle, combined with other evidence from the excavation, reinforces the hypothesis that the building was associated with the Imperial Court of Emperor Septimius Severus, who was in York, and possibly related to an imperial visit to Carlisle.

The discovery of Tyrian purple in Carlisle is a rare event, especially in northern Europe. Its implications stretch beyond the pigment itself, suggesting that the Roman bathhouse might have had connections to imperial power or was visited by high-ranking individuals. This link to the Roman court raises further questions about the significance of this site and its role within the broader Roman Empire.


Wardell Armstrong

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