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RESEARCH

New Treasures From King Midas‘ Tomb

He didn‘t enjoy it much himself, but recent research from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has revealed that Phrygian mourners gave King Midas quite a send-off, partying down with gallons of grog and feasting on a savory lamb-and-lentil stew.


The tomb of King Midas (top) contained the skeleton of the legendary Phrygian king, as well as bronze bowls and caldrons that once held a potent alcoholic beverage (above), and a bronze ram's-head serving vat (below).

   Researchers from the museum have unearthed much of what we know about the real King Midas, who ruled Phrygia around 700 B.C. and was immortalized in mythology as being cursed with a touch that turned everything, including food and drink, into gold. Since 1950, they have been working on a dig in Gordion, the capital of the Phrygian Empire, located about 100 km west of Ankara, Turkey, on the edge of the Central Anatolian steppe.
    In 1957, archaeologists under the direction of Rodney S. Young excavated the largest mound in Gordion, known as “tumulus MM” or the “Midas Mound.” While there was no trace of gold, they did discover a remarkably preserved wooden tomb, the earliest known intact wooden structure in the world, believed to be the royal tomb of Midas. Inside, together with a log coffin containing the skeleton of the king, aged 60 to 65, they found elaborately inlaid wooden furniture—some of the earliest and best preserved wooden furniture in the world—whose design suggested that they were used as serving and dining tables for food and drink. They also discovered the most comprehensive Iron Age drinking set ever found—dozens of bronze vessels of various sizes. These included some large 125-liter caldrons and smaller five-liter caldrons set into a special serving table, along with bronze ladles used for serving. Mourners drank from one- or two-liter bowls, of which exactly 100 were unearthed.
    Fast-forward 40 years. That‘s when technology and Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, senior research scientist and an archaeochemist at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA) finally caught up to the Phrygian funerary feast. McGovern and two colleagues, Dr. Donald L. Glusker and Lawrence J. Exner, became involved at the suggestion of Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, director of the museum‘s Gordion Furniture Project.
    “The archaeologists brought the food and drink samples back to Penn in 1957,” McGovern recalls. “They went into the Gordion archive room, right above me in the museum, and had been there ever since.”
    McGovern is one of the world‘s leading molecular archaeologists. Instead of a pickaxe and sifter, he employs the tools of modern science: infrared spectrometry, high-performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and wet chemical methods. Using these same techniques, McGovern and his team have published research in the British science journal Nature on the earliest known barley beer and the earliest known wine.
    The food samples were spongiform masses that had once filled the pottery jars found in the Midas Mound. “We had five pounds of this brownish material available for study, much more than any we‘ve ever seen from ancient vessels,” McGovern says. Archaeologists also found large clumps of this material around the pottery jars, leading McGovern to speculate that the mourners perhaps ate the food off pieces of cloth, which disintegrated over the course of centuries.
    Chemical analysis revealed fatty acids and triglycerides characteristic of sheep or goat, together with cholesterol. A particular phytosterol indicated that edible legume seeds—most likely lentils—had been added, along with olive oil, honey and wine. Other compounds suggest that the meat was first barbecued, and Mediterranean herbs such as anise or fennel flavored the stew.
    To determine what the mourners drank, McGovern and his colleagues conducted tests on residue flakes taken from two situlas (small vats used in serving)—one adorned with a bronze ram‘s head, the other with a lion‘s head; nine small drinking bowls with omphalos or “belly-button” bases; and four larger bowls for those with greater thirsts.
    Analysis of the feast beverage has led McGovern to conclude that the Phrygians probably migrated to Turkey from Europe—not, as others have suggested, from Asia. Among the tell-tale ingredients that showed up in tests were beeswax, left over from honey used in mead; tartaric acid, which occurs in large amounts only in grapes and indicates the presence of wine in the concoction; and calcium oxalate, a simple acid which is the chemical fingerprint of beer.
    Tellingly, the wine wasn‘t resinated. Many ancient vintners used tree resins to prevent wine from going to vinegar (Greek retsina is a remnant). “It‘s strange that the wine found in the tomb wasn‘t resinated,” says McGovern. “That may be somehow related to the traditions of the Phrygians, where they came from and what they were used to.”
    The mix of mead, wine and beer is more of a European tradition, lending some credence to the notion that the Phrygians came down to Turkey from the Balkans or modern Greece some time around 1200-800 B.C. “The mixing of these drinks is substantiated in northern Europe,” McGovern explains. “They didn‘t have a lot of possibilities for stretching out the grapes, so they used barley, wheat, and honey—whatever sugar source they could use to get the fermentation going.” Analysis of Greek kykeon, a mixed fermented beverage from 400 years earlier, bolsters the possibility that the Phrygians carried this recipe from Greece to Turkey.
    When ancients drank to their health, they really meant it. McGovern suggests that the microbes employed to spark fermentation and help preserve the beverage also increased the nutrient value of the drink.
    While McGovern considers the analysis of the Midas funerary feast the piece de resistance of his team‘s work, it also marks the acceleration of a trend to probe the secrets of history with modern diagnostic technologies. For instance, by recovering DNA from yeast used to ferment grapes to wine, scientists can chart how yeast evolved over the centuries and begin to understand how humans developed fermentation technology. “Once we get a grasp on how these processes developed, we could maybe make better products than we do today. We may have lost a lot along the way,” says McGovern. “Molecular
archaeology has more than
entertainment value; it will have a very practical impact on food science in the future, in addition to helping us understand diseases and human
genetic development.”

—Harry Goldstein

 

 
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