Antiquity and late antiquity

The Pinna nobilis provides up to one kilo of mussel meat, so it was primarily food. “The pinnae are water-driving, nutritious, not easily digestible,” wrote the Greek Athenaeus in the 2nd century BC. Remains of pinna shells from the Bronze Age have been found on almost all coasts of the Mediterranean. The bright red mother-of-pearl layer inside the shell was also recycled.

The Roman Empire at the Time of its greatest expansion in the 3rd century

At some point, somewhere someone had the idea to use the adhesive threads from the Pinna nobilis as well. These threads being cleaned, combed and spun, resulted in a new textile material with a natural golden sheen that was something very special. Where was that? And when? Who discovered it? In Hittite texts there are references to a brown-green sea wool from the Aegean, which may have been sea silk (Heinhold-Krahmer 2007). Or was it the Phoenicians, who lived on the eastern Mediterranean coast 1000 years before Christ and knew another sea product, real Tyrian purple, the most precious dye of the ancient world? One thing is certain: what was called byssus in the Bible is not sea silk – it was fine linen. And the pharaohs were not wrapped in sea silk after their deaths – it was fine linen. Explanations of this complicated story can be found in the chapter Linguistic aspects → Byssus and byssus.

Tertullian is the first to describe the use of sea silk. Source:

The first written evidence of textile use of sea silk dates back to the 2nd century AD. In Alciphron’s letters we find the Greek term for sea wool (tὰ ἐκ τῆς θαλάσσης, thalassis eria). In Latin it is marinas lanas. Tertullian, a Carthaginian lawyer who converted to Christianity, mentions sea silk in his De Pallio: “Nec fuit satis tunicam pangere et serere, ni etiam piscari vestitum contigisset: nam et de mari vellera, quo mucosae lanusitatis plautiores conchae comant” In English: “Nor was it enough to comb and sow the materials for a tunic, It was necessary also to fish for one’s dress; For fleeces are obtained from the sea, where shells of extraordinary size are furnished with tufts of mossy hair.”

In addition to wool and linen, the textile materials commonly used at the time, sea silk was also used for clothing purposes and was already described as a luxury in an accusatory sense.

In Hebrew legal texts (around 210 AD), a “green or yellow substance from water” is mentioned. In Aramaic, the everyday language of the time, this is translated as “sea linen”. Also “wool of a sea shell” is mentioned, and several times “wool from the sea” (Makbili 2013).

It is unexpected to find the mention of sea silk in Chinese sources, including in Hou Hanshu and Weilüe from the 1st to 3rd centuries. A short video explains this period (text by Hill 2009). Precious textiles from the Roman Empire (or Daqin) are mentioned: “They also have a fine cloth which some people say is made from the down of ‘water sheep’.” (Chinese shuiyang 水羊, down from the water sheep). A new translation of the book shows that this was not wild silk, but sea silk (Bretschneider 1871, Hirth 1885, Pelliot 1959, Laufer 1915, Ecsedy 1974, McKinley 1998, Boulnois 2001, Hill 2009). In other Chinese sources, we find “cloth from Folin (haixi),” “stuff from the western sea (hai si pu),” and mermaid silk or, as Hill (2009) writes, “silk material made by the nymphs of the southern seas” (Pelliot 1959, McKinley 1998).

Extract from Diocletian’s Price Edict, 301 AD

The most important proof of the existence of sea silk in ancient times is probably Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices from 301, an excellent source for all those interested in everyday Roman history. Inflation and high prices caused the Roman emperor Diocletian to prescribe maximum prices for all imaginable goods and services, and this rule was carved in stone in Latin and Greek and placed in all of the important market places in the empire. Parts of it have been preserved, and new fragments are still being discovered today.

The Latin term lana marina/Greek term ἔραίας θαλασσίας (eraias thalassias) has long been a mystery. Sea silk was mentioned, then discarded. Now textile experts agree: in Chapter 25 of the price edict about wool it is mentioned sea wool. A tunic made of sea silk costs the enormous sum of 48,000 denarii (the cheapest tunic was available for 200 denarii). Do we translate: a winter coat for 200 Euro or one for 48,000 Euro! This also gives greater credibility to the statement of the 11th century Persian traveler Nasir Khusraw: “I heard that the king of Fars once sent twenty thousand dinars to Tinnis to buy one suit of clothing of their special material. (His agents) stayed there for several years but were unsuccessful in obtaining any” (Caputo & Goodchild 1955, Lauffer 1971, Giacchero 1974, Reynolds 1981, Hunsberger 2000, Wild 2001, 2015, Harlow 2012).

Saint Basil the Great (331-379), Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, speaks in a sermon text with admiration of the golden fleece of the pinna, which no dyer has yet imitated: “Unde pinnae auream lanam nutriunt, quam insectorum nullus hactenus est imitatus.” This quotation is probably the origin of the legend telling that Jason’s Golden Fleece from Greek mythology would be sea silk (Zanetti 1964, Abbott 1972). Chris Cole published an excellent article of this legend in 2005.

There are no material findings from this period. Unfortunately, the alleged discovery of sea silk fibers in excavations in Pompeii has not been confirmed – it has been proven that these were fibres of an ordinary bath sponge (Maeder & Médard 2018).

The Byzantine historian Procopius describes precious dresses made of sea silk in 6th century Byzantium. Source:

Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine Empire, was known for its luxury, not least in clothing. In his book De Aedificiis, written about 550 AD, the historian Procopius describes the insignia which five Armenian satraps (governors) received from Emperor Justinian I as a sign of power. These included a “cloak made of wool, not like that which comes from the sheep, but collected from the sea. It is customary to call the living creatures ‘Pinnoi’ from which this wool grows”. The British historian Edward Gibbon also mentions sea silk in 1781 in the 4th volume of his book on the fall of the Roman Empire: “They were still more intimately acquainted with a shell-fish of the Mediterranean, surnamed the silk-worm of the sea: the fine wool or hair by which the mother-of-pearl affixes itself to the rock is now manufactured for curiosity rather than use; and a robe obtained from the same singular materials was the gift of the Roman emperor to the satraps of Armenia.”

All these examples show that there was no uniform term for sea silk in either Latin or Greek, but it was described as a marine product. It is important to note that in no ancient text accessible today is sea silk described as byssus!

Aquincum – Budapest

Aquincum on the northern border of the Roman Empire, today Budapest

Necklace of gold and glass beads from the tomb at Aquincum, 4th century

From the 4th century AD comes the first material evidence of sea silk in late antiquity. The material fragment was found in 1912 in a woman’s grave in Aquincum. Today’s Budapest was then a Roman legionary city on the north-eastern border of the Empire. The necklace of gold and coloured glass beads found at the same time indicates that this mummy was a high-ranking figure. There is some evidence that the textile fragment originates from the Syrian provinces of Rome. Unfortunately, this fragment was lost during the Second World War (Hollendonner 1917, Nagy 1935, Wild 1970, Maeder 2008).


Other sources on antiquity and late antiquity include the following:
Jolowicz 1861, Marquardt 1886, Mommsen & Blümner 1893, Laufer 1915, Pfister 1934, and Forbes 1956.