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 For most readers of Oriental rug literature, the nature and use of insect dyes in rugs and textiles can probably be summarized as follows:

 1. The dye cochineal originated in Spanish America or in other Spanish territories, from a cactus-feeding insect, and was used in certain rugs and textiles of the Caucasus, Persia, and Turkey.

2. The dye lac originated in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in Asia, from an insect producing both dye and shellac, and was used in rugs and textiles in India and in areas along trade routes where lac was available.

3. The dye kermes was isolated from the oak kermes insect and is a mysterious colorant used since antiquity, but it has not been conclusively documented in Oriental rugs.

Figure 1. Margarodes Polonicus from Breynius Prodromi Fasciculi Plantarum, Library, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

A critical look beyond these simple perceptions and terms, however, reveals much confusion, uncertainty, and outright wrong information about certain of these dyes.

Some time ago, my interest in a critical examination of certain of these insect dyes was enhanced by correspondence from Lem Amirian. He asked for a resolution of contradictory writings in the rug literature about the biochemical and entomological character of the dye and the dye insect giving rise to the well-known color, Armenian Red. Armenian Red has a history reaching back to pre-Christian times.

While it is generally known in technical circles that Armenian Red owes its genesis to a ground-dwelling scale insect, the Ararat Cochineal, this scientifically accepted point has not emerged in the rug literature. We also recognized that there were other points of misconception about insect dyes in general.

Confusion about these insect dyes among non- entomologists and non-ethnogeographers is certainly understandable. Over the centuries, a pervasive, frequently undecipherable jumble of interchangeable terms and names for colors, for insect dyestuffs, and for dye-producing biota has proliferated. Furthermore, the technical communities untangling these confusions and writers of Oriental rug and textile literature have been isolated from each other.

In addition, one could be correct at one level of knowledge about these dyes and their origins but still be incorrect at another level. For example, one might understand that the oak kermes insect is biologically different from the cochineal dye insect that feeds on cactus, but still be misinformed about which dyestuff was used where and when. Adding to the general confusion is the fact that the sphere of distribution of these dyes is partly determined by rather invariant entomological, climatological, and parasite-host relationships and partly determined by highly variable economic factors associated with trade routes and economic hegemony of specific colonial powers.

This article is an attempt to clarify some of the points of confusion. It specifically addresses Armenian Red and its relationship to the Ararat Cochineal insect, other insect dyes such as that from the oak kermes, the poorly known Polish cochineal, and elements of linkage or separation among them. Included in this overall discussion are two articles translated from the Armenian by Lem Amirian, articles which provide both encyclopedic and first person information on the Ararat Cochineal.

A number of comprehensive technical works were examined in preparing this article and they are indicated in "Notes." A number of scientific experts on dye insects were consulted and I wish to especially acknowledge Dr. H. Jonathon Banks, Division of Entomology, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Canberra, Australia; Professor D. W. Cameron, Department of Organic Chemistry, University of Melbourne, Australia; Max Saltzman, color technology consultant; and Professor M. Ter-Grigorian, Institute of Zoology, Academy of Sciences, Armenia S.S.R., Yerevan. The valuable translating expertise and contributions of Lem Amirian are, of course, greatly appreciated.

A number of comprehensive ethnogeographical reviews were consulted, and the writings of R.A. Donkin, Jesus College, Cambridge University, were particularly useful. A detailed textbook on dyes and pigments in art and history, Franco Brunello's The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind, is also of help but, regrettably, it has very limited distribution.


Historical References A number of historical references are known for the presence of certain colors in valuable materials over the centuries. Often, the true origin of the colors or color principles in these materials cannot be determined. In the case of the Armenian Red of antiquity and more recent times, however, it is clear that one is dealing with information whose ethnogeographical connections can be traced with some reliability.

As noted by Donkin 1 and Brunello2,the earliest historical reference to a dye or color being specific to classical Armenia is dated to 714 B.C., when Sargon II of Assyria attacked the kingdom of Van or Urartu and acquired as part of the booty "scarlet textiles of Ararat and Kurkhi." In the fifth century A.D., two Armenians named Moses of Chorone, a geographer-historian, and Ghazar of Parbetzy (see Donkin1 for translations) refer to Araratia province as the source of a red dyestuff from a worm. A number of references in the Middle Ages to a red of Armenia document a region-specific dyestuff, particularly in the writings of Persian and Arab geographers of the ninth through 14th centuries.

Al-Baladuri (d. ca. 892) described Ardizat, to the east of Ararat, as Karya-al-Kirmiz, the "town of kirmiz." According to Ibn Hauqal (who wrote 943-977), the city of Dabil (Dwn, Duvin, Touin) stood north of Ardasat (Ardisat) and was the nlace where thev mSIrl~ "th~ hpSIlItifll1 rnlnr r'.llp~ Irprmp'7 place whrere they made "the beautiful color alled kermiez...(of) a certain worm." Donkin's review identifies sources of these translations.

Dabil was also referred to as "a great town and the capital of Armenia... to it belongs a great countryside... it produces worms from which the crimson-dye is made" (translation by Minorsky of the Persian Hudud-al-Alam, or Regions of the World, written about 982 A.D. and noted in Donkin). Donkin also notes the statements of Al-Biruni (973-1048 A.D.) and Hamzah Al-Isfahani (d. 961) about the production of Azerbaijan of insect dye having the same characteristics as the dye from Araratia.

As noted by Donkin, reliable references to Armenian Red in later times are few. However, in his Embassy to Tamerlane (1403-1406), Gonzales de Clavijo notes, "In the valleys at the foot of the mountain (Ararat), the kirmiz worm is found. with which they dye silk crimson." More recent references to this dye are discussed as part of information on the Ararat Cochineal. both the dyestuff and dye-producing coccid insect.

One point of confusion which exists for the origin of Armenian Red is that of terminology of the color or dyestuff. In the article of Vitali Babenko, translated from the Armenian by Lem Amirian and reprinted here, and the reviews of Donkin and Brunello, it is clearly indicated that a number of proto-Indo-European languages have antecedents of the present English word "kermes." In all cases, the word is for the color red by derivation from the etymological root for "worm."

Hence, references to the term by geographers and historians over the years mean a red from a worm. This has often been taken to mean the dye of the true oak kermes insect, when in fact other insects and their dyes could theoretically also meet the historical characteristics. In any event, it is linguistically obvious that the existence of a dyestuff from a worm was understood in very early times. As noted above, the reference could be to the Ararat cochineal, the true kermes coccid, or even other species that will be mentioned in the report.

The Ararat Cochineal (Porphyrophora hamelii): Entomolgy, Geography, and Biochemistry

Armenian Red was invariably prepared from the coccid species, Porphyrophora hamelii Brandt.1 Taxonomically, the Ararat cochineal, P. hamelii, is a member of the Margarodidae, a family of the super family called Coccoidea (or scale insects). The margarodes spend much of their life burrowing in the ground and feeding on the roots of certain host plants. There are genera of the Margarodidae other than those of interest here, but they are not discussed. It is interesting to note that the various coccids which produce dyes in various parts of the world are assigned to different families of the Coccoidea, which means they are diverse biologically and entomologically. Different taxonomy schemes exist for these insects, but the one used here is that commonly accepted in general texts. Table 1 summarizes the relevant technical and other information for the various insect dyes discussed in this article.

Table 1. Descriptive Characteristics of Insect Dyes for Oriental Rugs and Textiles

Dyestuff Insect Sources Area Comments
Armenian Red Ararat Cochineal (Porphyrophora hamelii) in Margarodidae Family Salt marshes of Armenia, Azerbaijan, perhaps Central Asia on roots of Aeluropus grass Used, at least locally, up to 19th century and maybe later
Kermes Oak kermes (Kermococcus vermilis) in Kermidae Family Branches of oak shrub {Quercus coccifera) in Mediterranean Europe, Africa, parts of western Asia Replaced by American cochineal in the 17th- 18th century
Polish Cochineal Polish Cochineal (Margarodes polonicus, Porphyrophora polonica) in Margarodidae Family Sandy soils of eastern Europe and perhaps Asia; on roots of low plants, Scleranthus perennis Difficult to harvest but widely used, into 19th century
American Cochineal Spanish Cactus Cochineal; Dactylopius coccus in Dactylopiidae (= Coccidae) Family: Parasite feeding on nopal and opuntia cactus; varying parts of Spanish America, Canary Islands and Malaga, Spain Supplanted old world dyes at different times in rug-making areas

All categories of the Coccoidea have quite specific host- parasite relationships. whereby the coccid insect owes its survival and geographic distribution to specific plants.

The Ararat Cochineal insect, P. hamelii, feeds on the roots and lower stems of a number of grasses placed within Aeluropus littoralis. The most often identified host grass is Aeluropus laevis (equivalent to Dactylis littoralis or Poa pungens). While these insect host grasses are distributed in southwestern and central Asia and in southeastern Europe, Donkin1 concludes that the data jibe with host grasses restricted to the marsh grass found in Azerbaijan and Armenia, specifically that found in the saline marshes along the Araxes River, extending to the marshes near Lake Urumia in present-day Iran. The flat valley floors around Mount Ararat are the most common site for the grasses, based on recent documentation of Hamel's 19th century studies and other data cited in the accompanying Armenian Encyclopedia article. Geographically, the distribution of this and other dye-producing insects is presented in Illustration I.

Illustration 1. Distribution of Old World Insect Red Dyes. From Donkin. Note 1.

As seen in Illustration I, the distribution of the Ararat Cochineal does not overlap that of the true oak kermes insect (see below), and there is little likelihood that any dyestuff other than P. hamelii would have emanated from old Armenia and contiguous areas.

The life cycle and related biological aspects of the Ararat Cochineal are presented in some detail in the Armenian Encyclopedia article on the coccid reprinted here. As with all these dye insects, it is the female which produces the colorant. The insects are collected for dye harvesting during the non- terrestrial mating phase in the early fall. Insect density on the ground and the host grass during this period can be very high. An English translation of the writing of German geographer Friedrich Parrott, ca. 1829, describes "...a number of cochineal insects, some of which were creeping about on the dry sand and short grass, but the greater part were collected...in large nests, round the roots of a short, hard species of grass - the dactylis littoralis...." Parrott was on the Araratian plateau when he made these observations.

Scientific study of the Ararat Cochineal began with the studies and surveys carried out by J. Hamel, a member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues, in 1835. Hamel drew attention to the insects' habitat along the broad valley of the Araxes, north and east of Mount Ararat. Hamel's party also was given information by monks at the Armenian monastery of Echmiadzin.

In September and October, the Ararat cochineal emerges from the soil very early in the morning and mates. Fertilized females reenter the soil and lay eggs. In the following April and early May, larvae emerge from the eggs and leave the soil briefly to feed on the new grass. They return to the soil and attach themselves to the roots of the host grass for the balance of the feeding cycle. According to the 1982 Soviet Armenian Encyclopedia article on the insect (translated and reprinted here), the dye-bearing female cochineal adult insects are gathered at the time of mating in the autumn.

Scientific study of the Ararat Cochineal insect and its dyestuff began in earnest about 1970 at the Academy of Science, Armenia S.S.R., Yerevan, Institute of Zoology. This effort was catalyzed by recognition that some of the synthetic red dyes used as food, drug, and cosmetic colorants can have carcinogenic potential; that is, some cancer risk is associated with using these synthetic colorants. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revoked use of the food, beverage, drug, and cosmetic colorant, Red No. 2, which I have referred to in articles in Oriental Rug Review as Amaranth. This is the synthetic substitute for cochineal in many later Turkoman rugs and trappings, particularly in work of the Tekke.

As noted in the accompanying Armenian Encyclopedia article, the Academy has a reserve of salt marsh land in the Hoktembarian region of Armenian S.S.R. for the systematic study of the cochineal. Based on numerous technical abstracts in English about the research of the Institute of Zoology on the Ararat Cochineal, little about the entomology and biological chemistry of this fascinating "worm" is expected to remain unexplained for long.

Chemistry & Biochemistry of the Ararat Cochineal Dyestuff

Methods for the isolation and purification of the dye from the Araratan coccid have still not been fully duplicated from the centuries-old fragments of archival data. We do know a fair amount about the insect's biochemistry, however. In terms of economics and trade, we know that there was a single annual harvest of the adult female in the autumn and that the dye amounts to up to 5% of the insect's live weight. Also, isolation of the dye is complicated by interferences from a rather high fat content, up to about 30% by weight.

The range of colors in the dye extraction media was a simple function of the chemical conditions of the dye harvesting process, while the appearance of the dried cochineal insects themselves could range considerably. In Babenko's article, reprinted here, the director of the laboratory investigating the Ararat Cochineal noted that the dried insects were not red but were a variety of other colors. This remark is of marginal relevance to the technology of the dye. Any dye/chemical technologist would confirm that the biochemical form of a dye or pigment in the insect as well as the visual appearance of the insect itself need not accord to the eye with the chemically isolated, pure dyestuff. Linguistically, the various oriental languages which use the root term for worm in various words for red could also intend for this term to connote "red (of the) worm."

What is the chief chemical principle of the dyestuff in the Ararat Cochineal? The answer to this question was not to be found in the open scientific literature, although the related research results of Banks and othersl1 for the closely related Polish Cochineal dye product (see discussion below) showed that carminic acid was virtually the entire active color principle. Only traces of other colored substances were found. Professor M. Ter-Grigorian has recently informed me that the Institute at Yerevan identifies carminic acid as the dominant principle in the Ararat Cochineal.

Identification of carminic acid as the color principle in the Ararat Cochineal, the same as that in the Spanish cactus cochineal and the related Polish Cochineal, may help explain why the Araratan species ceased being a dominant trade material in western Asia. This is discussed further in the report.

Use of Ararat Cochineal (Armenian Red) Dye in Decorative Arts

The available evidence from archival and other records makes it clear that Armenian Red was used in illuminated manuscripts of Armenian monasteries, in various textiles of Armenia, and we would expect that Armenian rugs made as recently as the 18th century and perhaps later would have used Armenian Red from Porphyrophora hamelii. When one carefully reads the comments of F. R. Martin and later writers concerning the vivid scarlet red in that group of rugs called the Dragon carpets, especially the earlier examples produced in the 17th and early 18th centuries, there is reason to expect that Ararat Cochineal red was used in the earliest carpets of this group and some of their stylistic ancestors.

There is little hard evidence to indicate that use of the Ararat Cochineal dyestuff in local rug production ended with any phase-out of Armenian Red as an exportable trade item. There is a general paucity of evidence at the remote village or town level to show either ending or continuation of Ararat Cochineal use. However, in the September, 1987, issue of the Wright Research Report,3 Wright furnishes information indicating continued use of the Ararat Cochineal into the early 20th century. In 1925, A. S. Piralov, author of a 1913 study on rugs, wrote a report on rugmaking in Armenia, western Georgia, and the southern Trans-Caucasus. In the report, he cites observations and statistics of M.G. Reliev to show:

"...cochineal is found in the barren steppes of Gandzha province and in the swamps and salt marshes of the Republic of Nakhichevan (part of Erivan) in the Arax valley, where the rural population in peacetime (pre- World War I?) collected up to 500 puds (9 tons) a year." In the Wright report, either Piralov or Reliev does confuse what is obviously the Ararat Cochineal with the Spanish cactus coccid, since it is noted that "...Coccus cacti (kyrmyz to the natives) is far superior to madder...cochineal is an extremely precious dye and beyond compare." Note also how the persistence of the term kyrmyz in the native area of the Ararat Cochineal would induce and sustain confusion between the local coccid and the oak kermes coccid insects.


Historical References

According to Donkin,1 the true kermes dye was probably the most important of the insect dyes of Old World origin.

In terms of the historical record, kermes dye use may even predate written history, inasmuch as kermes-dyed remains have been identified at a prehistoric archaeological site in Provence, France (see Donkin1 for the site description given by J. and Ch. Cotte, 1916 and 1918).

Evergreen oaks which might have included the kermes host oak species were known to the Hebrews. The Phoenicians apparently had access to kermes in Palestine and Cilicia (celebrated for its oaks), and Rodenheimer4 cites the reference by a Phoenician merchant to "the rouge extracted from worms" and carried into northern Iraq in the second millenium B.C. as the earliest written reference to kermes dye. Tiglath-pileser I (ca. 1100 B.C.) introduced oak trees to Assyria (see Donkin), presumably as plant host for kermes insects.

Greco-Roman accounts of the kermes insect and its dye are rather garbled in terms of clearly characterizing this specific coccid. One reference which is clear, however, is that of the geographer Pausanius, second century A.D.: "This shrub (the kermes oak) the Ionians, as well as the rest of the Greeks, call kokkos there breeds in the fruit of the kokkos a small creature...and the blood of the creature serves as a dye for wool" (translations of Jones as cited in Donkin). Cotte (1918) and Andre (1949) (as cited in Donkin) trace the etymology of the name "kokkos" and its connection to the oak of the kermes insect.

More recently, the Arab geographer and historian Al-Ya 'Qubi (A.D. 900) wrote that Assiut in Upper Egypt produced carpets dyed with kermes in the manner of the carpets of Armenia (Wiet, 1937 translation into French, see Donkin).

In the Middle Ages and later, it is clear from many accounts that true kermes dye from the Mediterranean was becoming entrenched in European and Near East dyeing practices. According to the review of Donkin,1 the peak in oak kermes dye use was a rather broad one, extending from the 12th century to the 16th century. The phase-out of kermes dye parallels that, more or less, of Armenian Red, from the Ararat Cochineal. Parallel decline probably occurred for the same reason: the introduction and rapidly expanding trade in Spanish cactus cochineal dye from Spanish America sources.

The Kermes Insect: Entomology, Geography, and Biochemistry

Based on all the available evidence, true kermes dye was obtained from a specific species of coccid insect native to the Mediterranean and certain contiguous regions.

Entomology and Geo-Entomology of the Kermococcus Vermilis

As can be seen in Table 1, kermes dye was prepared from a coccid insect species, Kermococcus vermilis Planchon (formerly Kermes ilicis L.), which is in that family of the Coccoidea called the Eriococcidae (= Kermidae). This dye- producing coccid breeds and feeds exclusively on the shrub oak Quercus coccifera. This exclusivity to the parasite-host relationship was established by the zoologist Planchon in 1864.

Distribution of the Kermococcus vermilis is, of course, that of the host oak species. This oak is found predominantly along the shores of Mediterranean Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, with distribution extending along a fringe into Iraq and southwest Persia (see Illustration I).

In common with other dye-producing members of the Coccoidea, it is the females of Kermococcus vermilis which yield the dye material. The immature, larval female is attached to the branches of Quercus coccifera until March, when it is at a grain-sized, red-violet colored stage. It begins to grow rapidly from this point, and by the end of April is the size and color of a violet pea. The kermes worm is collected at this point, which jibes with various reports of insect gathering from kermes oaks in April and early May. The violet color of the female kermes insect at this point parallels that of the Ararat Cochineal insect. In both cases, it would seem that terms for "red" and "worm" in many Eastern languages should not be taken to mean "red worm" so much as "red from the worm."

Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Kermococcus Insect

When collected and dried, the Kermococcus scale insect appears as a red-brown, smooth seed-like pellet. This probably accounts for early writers identifying the source of kermes as a plant rather than an animal.

The color principle in the Kermococcus insect is almost exclusively kermesic acid. Kermesic acid as the main colorant in Kermococcus vermilis has been known since the early 20th century research of Otto Dimroth in Germany.

Kermesic acid is distinct enough chemically from carminic acid, found in the Ararat Cochineal and other cochineal scales, that a modern laboratory can distinguish between the two dyes. For example, in my article on the dyes and mordants in the Princeton Mamluk,5 kermesic acid, lac dye components and other dyes were examined by high pressure liquid chromatography. All of these dyes and their components were easily separated and identified by authentic sample comparison. In the Mamluk, the red was lac from India.

Kermococcus Vermilis Dyestuff in the Decorative Arts

Based on all the evidence, kermes dye (kermesic acid) has been used as a textile dyeing substance since antiquity and its use was particularly high for such purposes as "Venetian Scarlet" in Mediterranean Europe and areas in the major Mediterranean trade channels from the 12th to the 16th century.

Technologically, the dye collection and isolation process was moderately tedious and the amount of dye extracted low for the effort and cost. Of all the Asiatic insect dye substances, kermes was the most costly and labor-intensive, except for possibly the Polish Cochineal, discussed below. Given the amount of evidence about the likely cost and difficulties of dye production, it is not surprising that the dye was restricted to the costliest of fabrics and textiles. There may well have been efforts to transplant and expand Kermococcus vermilis along plantation lines, similar to the work with the Spanish cactus coccid, but there is no evidence of success.

For utilitarian Oriental rugs and textiles, the dye substance would probably always have been too costly. For the reds in classical carpets, things are a bit more interesting. According to Whiting,6 lac from India was the source of the scarlet red in classical Persian carpets, paralleling the use of lac in Mamluk carpets.


Of the various insect dyes known to readers of oriental decorative art literature, the Polish Cochineal coccid dye insect and its dye are least familiar. However, this coccid dye producer was for many centuries a dominant factor in the textile dye trade and commercial history-of eastern Europe and the Near East. While there is little specific evidence that Polish Cochineal dye was used in any category of Oriental rug, its presence in the market at the time certain rug types were made would be a complicating factor in drawing conclusions about insect dye use.

Historical Record

According to Donkin,1 the research work of Pfister establishes the earliest documentation for Polish Cochineal dye in textiles, those found in Egypt and Syria, dating to Hellenistic-Roman times. Pfister's work in the 1930s involved tests for distinguishing kermes, madder, and cochineal in textiles of Persian (Sassanid) and Chinese origin. To this writer, however, either Ararat or Polish Cochineal sources were possible.

The Capitularies of Charlemagne, according to Donkin, have the earliest mention of Polish Cochineal (vermiculo) in the West (812 A.D.). There are a number of citations for the 12th century and later regarding the presence and harvesting of Polish Cochineal in eastern and central Europe, and these are summarized by Donkin1 and Brunello.2 A number of the leading medical botanists and herbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries described the Polish Cochineal insect.

The first scientific comments about Polish Cochineal are found in the writings of Segerius (1670) and von Bernitz (1672). These were followed in the 18th century by the commentary of J.P. Breynius (1731). These commentaries are cited in Donkin and Brunello.

From about 1800 on, Polish Cochineal was mainly employed in eastern Europe, specifically in Poland and the Ukraine, and via trade routes in central and western Asia. A number of travelers in their chronicles of the 19th century refer to the "cochineal" produced in Russia and brought to Kashgar, Kabul, and Herat via Bukhara. This type of cochineal may have relevance to the available data we have regarding the use of two types of "cochineal" in Turkoman tribal rugs and trappings, discussed below.

The Polish Cochineal Insect (Margarodes Polonicus): Entomology, Geography, and Biochemistry

Entomology and Geographical Distribution of Margarodes Polonicus (Polish Cochineal)

The Polish Cochineal, like the Ararat Cochineal, belongs to the Margarodidae family of the Coccoidea (see Table I). It is a soil dweller and root feeder, and breeds and feeds exclusively on the roots of the host plant, Scleranthus perennis. This is a low-lying plant distributed narrowly in Poland, the Ukraine, and Lithuania (see Illustration 1). Donkin notes that other areas of distribution have been reported in Asia Minor, the Caucasus, Turkestan, and western Siberia. It is not clear whether these latter areas produced the dye coccid in commercial quantities comparable to those of eastern Europe.

The coccid apparently did not emerge from the soil at maturity before it was gathered but rather was gathered in late June of the year directly from the roots. The mature female dyebearer is relatively small and the quantity of dye per insect is also relatively small. Brunello notes that the collection required uprooting the plants to obtain a limited number of insects. There was constant need to keep replanting the host, and plantations in the Ukraine and elsewhere in eastern Europe were operated for the purpose.

Biochemistry of the Polish Cochineal

Banks1 has conclusively demonstrated that the dominant color principle in the dye from the Polish Cochineal is carminic acid, with traces of kermesic acid being detected. This is the same colorant as that in Armenian Red and Spanish Cochineal dye.

Polish Cochineal Dye in Decorative Arts

All of the available information suggests that the dyestuff from the Polish Cochineal ground dweller was difficult to obtain and modest in relative yield, compared to the Armenian Red, Spanish Cochineal dye, and even the kermes dye. It appears that this dyestuff was used where more economically attractive colorants were not readily available. Despite these limits, the dye was widely traded.

According to Brunello, this insect was also called St. John's Blood because, for many years, it was only gathered on St. John's Day and the gathered insects were given as a tithe to local monasteries. This also suggests there may have been some ecclesiastical pressure on the local faithful to tend the tedious chore of harvesting the insects. After the roots of the host plant were carefully cleaned, the feeding insects were killed with vinegar and dried.

By the 18th century, there was some level of commercial, plantation production of the insect and the dye, in order to deal with the high toll on the host plants at harvest. Such controlled production clearly occurred in the Ukraine, as indicated in Brunello.2

Turks and Armenians obtained the dye from local traders, and it is known that these people used the dye for wool and silk, and for decorative coloring of the tails of horses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the extension of Czarist Russian colonial control to western and central Asia was accompanied by trade development in the Polish Cochineal dye. Bokhara was the dye selling center.

Since we know that the dye was used in eastern Europe for wool and silk and later was distributed into Turkoman tribal areas, there is reason to assume that the Polish insect probably accounted for the scarlet red in at least some of the extant rugs of those regions and of this period. Perhaps the most direct indication of this is the study of Whiting7 on Turkoman rug dyes.

Certain pieces were found to have one of two types of "cochineal," which Whiting termed cochineal-I and cochineal-II. It may be that one of these is the Polish Cochineal, simply on the basis of what we know about its limited production and likely cost. Freely available cochineal, based on the arguments of Bruggemann and Bohmer,8 would arise from the entry of Canary island cochineal dye to world markets, after about 1870-1875.


The topic of the New World Spanish Cochineal Dactypopius coccus, found on cactus species of Opuntia and Nopalea, represents a huge body of information. Our primary interest in this article is the extent to which this American coccid and its transplanted descendants in Spanish possessions affected the production and use of the insect dyes already discussed.

Two particular points of interest to be noted are, first, the color principle in the New World, Spanish Cochineal versus that in Armenian Red and Polish insect dye, and, second, the level of export of Spanish Cochineal dye from the New World to Europe and elsewhere and when it occurred.

Scientifically, the cochineal dyestuff from the New World coccid is carminic acid, the same chemical species found in both the Polish and Ararat coccids. This fact, and the relative abundance of the dye, its high colorant content in the insect preparations, and its ease of isolation from the dried insects made for formidable competition to the older forms. As noted, the Ararat Cochineal coccid has a high fat content which not only reduced the effective dyeing power of the substance but also required separation and purification steps which may not have been straightforward.

New World cochineal dye entered trade channels surprisingly early. Donkin9 and Baranyovits10 point out that not long after Cortez's arrival in the New World in 1518, cactus cochineal dye may have begun to be shipped back to Spain. Exactly when this occurred is subject to some uncertainty, but Donkin9discounts the 1520s and 1530s as too early and cites archival data of Cervantes de Salazar from 1544 showing sizeable shipments of dyestuff to Spain.

In the second half of the 16th century, there is abundant evidence that New World cochineal dye was being shipped to Spain and elsewhere. This dye reached Europe through Spanish ports such as Cadiz and Seville. By 1560, available dye exceeded Spain's domestic needs and dye was exported to the rest of Europe, beginning with the Low Countries and with Antwerp as market center. England was importing the Spanish dye by 1558.

Spanish cochineal dye reached Asia by the 1550s by way of at least four trade routes, which are germane to the dye's potential for use in oriental textiles of high value: 1) from the Levant to Persia, and then to India; 2) from Constantinople and Black Sea ports to Turkey and the Caspian region; 3) directly to India in ships from England; and 4) direct transport from New Spain to Asia via the Philippines.

According to Donkin,9 Persia was a recognized market for the Spanish dye from the beginning of the 17th century, based on entries in State Papers for 1617-1621. The workshops of Isfahan are recorded in States Papers of 1625-1629 as having received Spanish dye through Venice and on occasion through Constantinople. Donkin9 refers to State Papers of the period to show that dye traders in Persia resold the cochineal substance in cities of northern India in the early 1600s.

The dominance of American cochineal dye in Central Asian dye markets had already been established when, as Donkin9 notes, A. Burnes in 1834 observed that American cochineal had largely displaced the Russian substance (Polish coccid dye).

Based on these reports and such developments as commercial cochineal cultivation in other areas under Spanish control, the Spanish dye was in world trade channels by the 17th century and, by the 18th century, even in remote areas.


The historical record and current scientific status document that Armenian Red was a bona fide dyestuff produced from scale insects in the salt marshes of Armenia and Azerbaijan and possibly elsewhere in Asia. Some indirect references exist to suggest a gathering of dye insects along the marshes of the Oxus (Donkin9). It is the Araratan insect dyestuff that Armenian decorative arts and export trade have used most. Textiles and illuminated Armenian manuscripts used the Ararat Cochineal dye and it is quite likely that Armenian rugs of the period predating the 18th (l9th?) century would have employed this colorant.

Chemically, it is difficult to establish the presence of Armenian Red from Porphyrophora hamelii versus either the dye from eastern Europe or the American cochineal, since carminic acid is the dominant color principle in all cases. It would seem, unfortunately, that science is of limited help in establishing the fact of Armenian Red use in Oriental rugs. One is still left with a dependence on historical tracts and the like.

The dye of the eastern Europe coccid, Margarodes polonicus, was probably used in textiles and perhaps even rugs in those parts of Ottoman Europe which lay within the market areas of the dye. Records indicate that Armenians and Turks bought and used the dye in Europe and in Asia Minor. How soon was this dye and that of other insects supplanted by American cochineal? This is difficult to say, since we have evidence of very early availability of the Spanish dye but also evidence that it was very expensive and not likely to be used for rugs or other utilitarian craft objects. It may well have found quick use in expensive embroideries and dowry items in general. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Polish Cochineal may have found its way into Turkoman rugs.

The dye from the true oak kermes insect, kermococcus vermilis, has had a long and widespread history in Asia and Europe. All evidence indicates that its use was confined to expensive textiles and apparel. This would be expected, given the difficulty in obtaining sizeable amounts of the colorant. The question as to why the dye was not used in royal manufactory carpets is intriguing but is likely one whose answer has more to do with trade routes and economics than inherent merits of the dyes.

The Spanish cactus coccid dye was distributed worldwide by the 17th century and the evidence of its likely use increases from that time in all rug-producing areas. Spanish Cochineal was in Anatolia, Persia, Central Asia, and northern India in quantities economical for rug use much earlier than one might think. Certainly, the accelerated production of the dye from commercial plantations in the Canary Islands assured blanket market availability.

There were various compelling reasons why the American dyestuff would have offered formidable competition to oak kermes, Armenian red, and Polish carminic acid: rather high percentages of pure dye in the marketed forms of the American material; multiple harvests of dye each year; and a rather clean and deep dyeing of fibers.

Tradition often gives way to practicality, and ease of dye use is no exception. Acceptance of the American Cochineal over other insect dyes is probably no more mysterious than the ready acceptance many years later of synthetic dyes to replace natural colorants.


1. Reviews of various aspects of insect dyes are contained in: Donkin, R.A., "The Insect Dyes of Western and West- Central Asia," Anthropos: International Review of Ethnology and Linguistics 72: 847-880, 1977; Banks, M.J., Pigments of the Coccoidea - Current knowledge and chemotaxonomic implications. Proceedings of the Symposium: Recent Advances in the Study of Scale Insects, Research Division Bulletin 127, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, pp. 51-67.

2 Brunello, F., The Art of Dyeing in the History of Mankind, Neri Pozza, ed., Vicenza, Italy, 1973, 467 pp., English edition, Phoenix Dye Works, Cleveland, Ohio.

3 Early Soviet Period Transcaucasian Rug Industry, The R. E. Wright Research Report, Vol. 5, No.5, September, 1987, M.&W. Publications, Falls Church, Virginia.

4 Bodenheimer, F.S., Animal and Man in Bible Lands, Leiden, 1960.

5 Mushak, P., "A Chemical Analysis of the Princeton Mamluk," Oriental Rug Review, Vol. V, No.6, pp. 4-5,1987.

6 Whiting, M.C., "Dye Analysis in Carpet Studies," Hali, Vol. 1, No.1, pp. 39-42, 1978.

7 Whiting, M.C., "The Dyes in Turkmen Carpets," Turkmen: Tribal Carpets and Traditions, L. W. Mackie and J . Thompson, eds., The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., 1980, pp. 217-224.

8 Bruggemann, W. and Bohmer, H., Rugs of the Peasants and Nomads of Anatolia, Kunst and Antiquitaten, Munich, 356pp.

9 Donkin, R.A., "Spanish Red. An Ethnogeographical Study of Cochineal and the Opuntia Cactus," Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 67, Part 5, pp. 1-84, 1977.

10 Baranyovits, F.L.C., "Cochineal Carmine: An Ancient Dye with a Modern Role," Endeavor: New Series, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 85-92, 1978.

by Paul Mushak


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