A Phrygian feast fit for King Midas

Large vessels and small drinking bowls (foreground) found in the 1950s contained the remains of a substantial funerary feast recently analyzed.

Photo from The Gordion Project, 1957

Once upon a time, in ancient Phrygia, in the capital city of Gordion, there lived a king named Midas who turned everything he touched into gold.

Well, King Midas, being real and human, may have been the Donald Trump of 700 B.C., but the magical golden touch of the legend was less than likely to be his. His grave, which was excavated by University of Pennsylvania Museum archaeologists 40 years ago in modern-day central Turkey, had not a whit of gold in it.

But it did have five pounds of residue of food and drink presumably left over from the funeral feast, said Patrick McGovern, the man who recently analyzed the residue. McGovern is senior research scientist at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology (MASCA), and his recent work may turn Midas’ funerary feast into gold after all.

McGovern began his analysis of the funeral feast after Penn alum Elizabeth Simpson (Gr’85), long-time director of the Gordion Furniture Project, proposed that McGovern analyze the residue at the bottom of the vessels unearthed from the grave and now stored in the Museum. “It’s about the easiest excavation I ever worked on,” said McGovern with a laugh.

The techniques and instruments that McGovern used were “just developed in the last two decades,” he said. The analysis of organic molecules now allows archaeologists to examine DNA and materials like wood, textiles and dyes that humans used for clothing, food and shelter.

So what did the mourners eat, anyway? A stew made of lentils, barbecued lamb (or perhaps goat — the two animals have similar fatty acids) and imported olive oil. “Olive trees do not grow around Gordion,” McGovern said. The stew was flavored with either fennel or anise and something peppery, like bitter vetch or fenugreek.

The mourners — at least 100 of them, as evidenced by the large number of quart-sized bronze drinking bowls buried in the mound — drank a brew of wine and beer mixed with mead (fermented honey) — a sort of Phrygian punch.

But knowing what went into the stew and the brew wasn’t enough for the folks at the Museum. They wanted to taste it.

They enlisted the help of Museum caterer Bruce Nichols to develop a recipe based on McGovern’s discoveries. And they enlisted the help of several brewers to experiment with several approaches to the punch, using “the same methods they would have used in antiquity,” said McGovern. Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware created the winner, dubbed King Midas Golden Elixir.

The day after McGovern tasted the Elixir, he could barely suppress his enthusiasm about the fizzy brew. He described it as light — closer to an herbal, floral champagne than to a beer. The brew contained Muscat grapes, thyme honey and barley fermented together and tinted with saffron to an intense gold, much like the residue of the original.

Here’s where the real gold comes in. The recipes form the basis for “A Feast Fit for King Midas,” a sumptuous dinner Sept. 23 (see “What’s On”) to benefit the Molecular Archaeology Program in MASCA.

To arrange a feast of your own, call 215-898-4890.

Originally published on September 14, 2000