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Old Gray House Gifts and Shells 

garments of gray to garments of glory published on: January 19th, 2008

The Muricadae or Murex family of shells is not only the largest but composed of some of the most colorful and unique shells in the ocean. When you visit the Old Gray House this a few of the Murex shells you will see.

by dewey parr

Do you remember a time when there was only black and white TV? Do you remember when there were limited numbers of colors available in fabrics? My wife and her friends love to quilt. Some of the old quilts had beautiful patterns, but not much color. Colorful materials just where not available. Today quilters are blessed with having to make decisions what hues of the primary colors to choose for their patterns.

I recall the days on Hatteras when most of the clothing worn was not very colorful. You did not see the beautiful colors in the rainbow being worn by people like you do today. Probably the most colorful items were the feed sacks the ladies used to make clothing. For a short period of about three years of my life I was deprived of the privilege of seeing colors due to a serious eye problem. Everything was Gray or Black with a little white. When I was fortunate enough to come back to the world of color I became more aware of how colorful our beautiful Island is. Nothing can compare with watching our sunrises and sunsets. Believe me it is no fun to have witnessed the colors of this world and then be deprived of it. That experience made me not only appreciative of colors but also more understanding what those who have limited vision are enduring. Take care of those eyes.

Murex Ramosus
Murex brassica. This colorful shell is found from Peru to the California. It is also called the Cabbage Murex. Look close and you will see that it has three brown bands

Imagine living in world of little or no color? What would it be like to live in a world where garments were drab and never seemed to be different from day to day? From what we can gleam from various history sources, people lived that way before a group of people in the village of Tyre, a Phoenician city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, found they could produce a dye from the animal in the Murex shell. Not only did this discovery revolutionize the garment industry but brought great fame and wealth to the Phoenicians. The only sad part about the discovery was that as usual it was the rich and powerful that benefited by it because it was so expensive. It also led to the over fishing of the Murex Shell. Mounds and mounds of crushed smelly Murex Shells dotted the horizon as the industry grew. It is said it took around 10,000 shells to produce the dye for one robe.

This discovery meant little to average people. Sensing the importance of the discovery the ultra rich and the royalty of that day seized the moment and capitalized on the industry. They immediately locked it up for themselves. The rulers of that day such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Nero reserved the color purple for themselves. Only those they permitted could wear Tyrian Purple, so named after the city of Tyre. Nero is supposed to have worn all purple robes and decreed that anyone else that did would be executed. Because of the Murex Shell the fashion shows began. Now at last the high and mighty all over the world could walk the streets of ancient Rome and say to the rest of the world, "Look at me, look at my clothes. I am different from the rest of you. Take note, I am rich and an important person and the purple stripes on my garments show it."

Murex Pecten

Murex Pectin
(Lightfoot 1786)
This strange looking member of the Murex family is also called Venus Comb or Mermaids Comb. Legend has it that it was used as a comb by mermaids and Venus the Goddest of Love . It is also called fish-bone because it resmebles the skelton of a fish.

Murex Alabaster

Murex Alabaster
Chicoreus (Siratus) alabaster, Reeve, L.A. 1845
This beautiful delicate Murex shell is listed as one of the 50 rarest shells in the World.

These are Some of the Many Different Species
of Murex or Rock Shells You Will Find At the Old Gray House

Even the hierarchy of the Church got into the act. Sacred Purple was reserved for the priests and parts of the temples. Among churchgoers the fringe of purple on a garment became a signal to all that the wearer had God's approval. Even to this day there is a quest to determine what species of the Muricidae family or Murex Shell was the one used to produce the sacred purple. I have a friend who told me when she went to visit the Holy Land that there was an aquarium in one temple with different species of live Murex Shells in it. She was told by one of the priests that they were used in experiments to determine which particular Murex Shell was the one that produced the Sacred Purple of the Bible.

After much research it has been determined that Royal Sacred Purple came from one of three species of Murex: Murex trunculus, Murex brandis, and Thais haemastoma. There is a company today that produces sacred strings dyed with extracts from the Murex shell that you can purchase to mark your Bible. I assume it is the fulfillment of the scriptures as well as showing your dedication to God.

Murex Ramosus For many years the Phoenicians had a monopoly on the production of Murex Purple. Their waters were full of Murex shells. As they worked and labored and perfected the art of producing the dye their market expanded. They found as time went on they could produce different hues of the color purple that approached red by controlling the amount of sunlight and adding other alkaline ingredients to the dye vats. When the fluid is first extracted from the shell it is clear with a yellowish tint but when it hits the sunlight it turns purple. The Phoenicians put the extracted solution in salt water not only preserve it, but to reduce the smell. They added other ingredients to control the density of color. They even were known to use urine of the workers in the vats. Can you imagine the pleasure some of the workers had knowing the rich and mighty were wearing garments saturated with their urine.

This domination of the dye market was soon to change. Others such as the Chinese found that their raw silk material adapted well to the dye, so they entered into the picture. Just as our local waters no longer provide us with the abundance of clams and oysters due to over harvesting so did the Mediterranean waters no longer yield less quantities of Murex Shells. This, along with the fact other color fast dyes from insects and chemicals began to come on the scene, the use of Royal Purple was no longer in demand.

Murex Ramosus Murex Ramosus Murex Ramosus Murex Ramosus

These are pictures of local Murex Shells that washed up on the beach with the animal inside. Notice the animal that has withrew inside and closed his trapdoor or operculumn for protection.

When I am walking our beach today it is seldom I find a Murex Shell anymore. When I do it is usually not in great shape. The major difference between our Murex and Mediterranean Murex is that the glands on the shell are near the surface and the fluid can be extracted from them without having to crush the shell. If you have ever held a Hatteras Island Murex Shell in your hand with a life animal inside you can attest the fact that the animal emits a huge amount of mucus or slime from its hypobranchial gland. This was not the case with the Phoenician shell so they crushed the smaller shells and separated the fluid from shell for their dyeing vats. In some cases they were able to extract the dye that produced fluid from the larger shells without crushing them. Can you imagine the smell that arose from piles of rotting shellfish along their shores? Occasionally Cape Point smells from all of the dead fish that line the beach, but nothing like people endured over there. It has been said that when ships used to pass Hatteras they could smell the difference. When Mary and I passed Hatteras coming out of Norfolk aboard ship on the way to the Caribbean we did not smell the difference, but we felt the difference from the rough seas.

When you visit the Old Gray House Shell Shack you will find a variety of Murex Shells available. They are beautiful to look at but in many areas they are not held in high esteem for the animal inside the shell is a predator that enjoys a good meal of clams and oysters. They have the ability to bore holes into the shells of their prey to gain entrance to the meaty delight. We do the same thing at Hatteras only we use a knife to pry the shell open. Should you decide to attempt to collect them all you will find it is an endless an expensive task.

Probably the showiest of all is the large Murex Ramosus which is becoming less and less available each year. I call it the Shell of Royalty. I keep one on display in my home all the time to remind me how the Murex Shell was used to bring our world from garments of gray to garments of glory.

Murex Ramosus - Front view

Murex Ramosus - Back view

Ramosus - The Shell of Royalty

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