THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

16 February 2014

Sea Snails and Purple Parchment

Purple coloured pages of vellum are sometimes found in sacred texts adorned in gold or silver lettering. They can be seen in folios 2-5 of the recently digitised Cotton Titus C XV on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Fragments of the Codex Purpureus Petrolpolitanus (a 6th century copy of the Four Gospels in Greek) demonstrate the use of purple as an indicator of wealth, power and kingship. Purple parchment was once only used for Roman or Byzantine Emperors, but later found use in Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts for the Emperors in Carolingian art and Ottonian art. The discovery of shell fragments in archaeological sites in Scotland and Ireland has pointed to the harvesting of sea snails for a gland which produces the purple colour. 

Purple parchment

CC zero Fragment of the Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, 6th century, Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 4v. Read more about this codex on the BL Medieval blog: A Papyrus Puzzle and Some Purple Parchment

In 1992 marine shell remains were recovered from caves in Sutherland County in Scotland. Archaeologists used sieves to isolate shells of the whelk known scientifically as Buccinum undatum. These whelks survive in shallow water (down to about 100m) and are found in sand and mud. Their usual capture occurs using baskets or baited pots. The fragmented state of the shells dispersed around the site suggested that they had been purposely collected and broken.

Buccinum undatum

CC by The sea snail Buccinum undatum

Another type of whelk mollusc, known as Nucella lapillus (dogwhelk or Purpura lapillus) was found at the Scottish site in Wetweather Cave. Nucella lapillus are found in crevices around rocky shores and estuarine conditions. They are a species of predatory sea snail found around the coasts of Europe and in the north west Atlantic coast of North America where they feed on barnacles and mussels. The deliberately broken shells indicated to researchers that the whelks, which are not edible and were not being used as fishing bait, were being gathered for the production of purple dye.

Nucella lapillus

CC by Nucella lapillus feeding on barnacles

Nucella lapillus was also found in Connemara in the West of Ireland in 1919 by J. Wilfred Jackson. Heaps of shells (referred to as Purpura-mounds) had previously been found in 1895, but Jackson noted that the shells had deliberately broken apical whorls (a whorl being a turn of the whelk's spiral shell), but the lower whorl with the mouth had been left intact. The shells were smashed in such a way as to retain the cumella allowing the beast to be removed easily. It was clearly a serious business with one of the Irish Purpura-mounds measuring about 50 by 14 m  - over 200 whelks were found in a single square foot!

The dye is comprised of a mucous secretion from the sea snail's hypobranchial gland and is an organic compound of bromine. The secreted fluid is released by the sea snail as a defence mechanism when agitated. The secretion can be collected by "milking" the sea snails, however this is a very labour intensive process and more often than not the snails are crushed instead. It can take thousands of snails to produce a single gram of pure dye. After salting, boiling and sitting for a few days the gland fluid begins to turn from a pale cream to a purple colour. This process is accelerated by sun exposure. After about 10 days the dye is ready for use.

Wulfila bibel

CC zero A purple parchment page of the 6th century Codex Argenteus with gold and silver lettering

Christina Duffy  (@DuffyChristina)

Further reading

Pollard, Tony (2005) 'The excavation of four caves in the Geodha Smoo near Durness, Sutherland'. Scottish Archaeology Internet Report 18

Jackson, J.W. (1917) 'Shells as Evidence of the Migrations of Early Culture'

Henderson, George, Vision and Image in Early Christian England, Cambridge University Press, 1999, paperback edition 2010, Chapter 3, pp.122-135, 'The Colour Purple: A Late Antique Phenomenon and its Anglo-Saxon Reflexes'.

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