Published online 23 December 1999 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news991223-11


Phrygian funerary feast

Everyone knows the cautionary legend of King Midas, whose avaricious wish that everything he touched would turn to gold had disastrous and tragic consequences. But a King Midas actually existed and - golden touch or not - he was very rich. Now archeologists have evidence that he knew how to party, even from beyond the grave.

Some of the artifacts discovered in Midas' tomb. Images © Gordion Project, Uni. PennsylvaniaSome of the artifacts discovered in Midas' tomb. Images © Gordion Project, Uni. Pennsylvania

Thereal Midas was King of Phrygia, a small part of modern Turkey. When he died, around 700 BC, his courtiers held a splendid feast in the old man's tomb. But nobody did the washing up - they just shoved the dirty dishes into the tomb along with His Late Majesty. This has given modern archaeologists the chance to analyse the leftovers, meaning that they can now announce what was on the menu at Midas's funeral feast.

That's the good news. The bad news is that kebab utensils left unwashed in a confined space for 2,700 years smell really, really bad.

Midas's last resting place is the so-called 'Midas Mound' at Gordion, in central Turkey. The tomb comprises the earliest known intact wooden structure from anywhere in the world. Inside the tomb, the body of an elderly man was found lying in state on a thick pile of dyed textiles in a log coffin, accompanied by wooden furniture, other grave goods and the pots and vessels that had been used in the old man's grand goodbye. The identification of the body with Midas is supported by the splendid setting of the tomb, its date and contemporary Assyrian inscriptions.

Enter Patrick E. McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, and his colleagues, who now announce the festive funeral menu, ingeniously derived from a chemical analysis of the pot scrapings, in Nature1.

Prominent among the remains of the banquet was a cocktail of fatty acids characteristic of sheep or goat fat. These compounds are very smelly: apparently, their rancid odour, lingering in a confined space for almost three millennia, "overwhelmed" the tomb's excavators. Other chemicals indicate that the meat was barbecued before being cut off the bone and seasoned with Mr Midas's Secret Recipe of Mediterranean Herbs'n'Spices.

The Phrygians liked a tipple, too-the Midas Mound contains "the most comprehensive Iron Age drinking set ever found", the researchers say, comprising various bronze mixing and serving vessels and more than 100 drinking bowls. These contain a variety of substances including tartaric acid (found naturally in large amounts only in grape juice and derivatives such as wine), calcium oxalate (found in the dregs of barley beer) and substances derived from beeswax.

This mixed brew - a cocktail of wine, beer and mead - was known to the Greeks as kykeon, and was the traditional accompaniment to outdoor barbecues. Homer's heroes would have been familiar with such feasts, as would the one-time residents of Phrygia, suggesting that the Phrygian's original home was Greece or the Balkans.

So, when you sip delicately at your sherry, and nibble at a mince pie, reflect that the great days of partying, like the bravest heroes and the most beautiful women, are in the past. 

  • References

    1. McGovern,P. E., Glusker, D. L., Moreau, R. A., Nuñez, A., Beck, C. W., Simpson, E., Butrym, E. D., Exner, L. J. & Stout, E. C. A funerary feast fit for King Midas. Nature 402, 863 1999. | Article | ISI |