He was said to have a "golden touch," and King Midas's subjects spared no expense when he died, entombing him inside an opulent wooden bedroom filled with inlaid furniture and submerged beneath a 174-foot mound of impermeable clay, gravel and logs.
To keep him company--or give him sustenance--in the great beyond, they brought in the leftovers from his funeral banquet--a savory stew and a fermented brew of wine, barley beer and honey mead.
This all occurred about 700 B.C. in ancient Gordion, in what is now central Turkey; and while the Midas legend has endured, scientists have only recently been able to focus on the mundane details of his funeral.
Reporting in today's issue of the scientific journal Nature, a research team led by University of Pennsylvania archaeochemist Patrick E. McGovern identified the cocktail that was consumed and found that the Midas mourners dined on barbecued lamb or goat accompanied by lentils in a sauce.
"One spice was either anise or fennel," McGovern said. "There were a lot of others, but we're not sure what they were." And the uniform size and texture of the 16 tested food samples suggested that the barbecue may have been recooked with the lentils in a stew, McGovern added. There were no bones in the main course.
McGovern's team extracted food and beverage residues from pottery jars and bronze cauldrons, bowls and ladles found in the burial chamber, analyzed them with mass spectrometry and chromatographic techniques, and compared the results to reference samples.
While the food might be described as typical Mediterranean fare, McGovern noted that the cocktail echoed the beverages of northern Europe, Greece and the Balkans, an indication that Midas and his Phrygian Empire may have had European origins.
"Europeans used apples, cranberries or anything they could find," McGovern said. The mix also suggested the grog consumed by the ancient Greeks in the Homeric epics. McGovern, an expert at dating ancient foods, is the discoverer of the world's oldest known wine (a 7,400-year-old Persian retsina).
According to Greek mythology, Midas was a wealthy monarch made wealthier by the god Dionysus, who gave him the ability to turn anything he touched into gold. This worked fine until dinner time, when Midas discovered he couldn't eat gold meals. He consulted with Dionysus again, then washed away his powers in the river Pactolus.
Midas today is generally believed to be the Phrygian King Mita, identified by contemporary Assyrians as an important potentate ruling large swatches of what is now modern Turkey. The enormous mound at Gordion, southwest of modern Ankara, is the largest ancient structure in the region by far, and given Midas's reputation, "most people are pretty convinced" the tomb is his, McGovern said.
Alexander the Great apparently thought so when he visited the site in 335 B.C. to untie the "Gordion knot" by slashing it with his sword, symbolically opening the gateway to Asia and paving the way for his subsequent conquest of most of the known world.
The University of Pennsylvania began the Gordion excavations in 1950, and first probed Midas's tomb in 1956. Worried that they would destroy the 1,000-foot-wide mound if they simply dug away the clay covering, the excavators used an oil drilling rig to find the gravel overlaying the tomb, then hired coal miners to dig a shaft to the burial chamber.
"The chambers are not easy to find because they're deliberately built off-center" to foil grave robbers, said former Gordion project director Keith DeVries, a curator of Penn's Archaeology and Anthropology Museum. "You had to find the gravel and tunnel in."
The miners dug through clay and gravel, then breached a sheathing of juniper logs and another layer of gravel before arriving at the squared-off pine beams framing the tomb itself.
It was the oldest wooden structure in the world, an elegantly preserved 20-feet-long-by-17-feet-wide room with a pitched ceiling reaching a height of 13 feet. Its year-round temperature was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and its smooth-sanded walls and wooden floor were well above the water table.
The undamaged skeleton of Midas, a smallish man between 60 and 65 years old, lay on what was left of sumptuous purple and blue robes in a log coffin. His remains were surrounded by 14 pieces of elegantly inlaid furniture--some of the oldest wooden pieces ever recovered.
These included stools and tables that were probably brought inside the tomb after the mourners had finished eating. Leftover food was inside pottery jars stacked in three bronze cauldrons. Beverage residues were found in more than 100 bowls, cauldrons and ladles.
Scientists did a rudimentary analysis of the food in the 1950s, but needed modern spectrographic techniques to identify the triglycerides and fatty acids found in the lamb or goat meat as well as the beverage components: tartaric acid from wine, calcium oxalate, also known as "beerstone," and beeswax.
"There was honey in [the stew], olive oil," and probably wine, McGovern said. "But probably not whole olives," since there weren't any pits.
CAPTION: The skeleton of King Midas was found in the 1950s in his tomb in Turkey. Among the relics discovered at the site was a drinking vessel, below. Using up-to-date techniques, researchers recently analyzed the residues of food and drink left by mourners around 700 B.C.