At Penn museum exhibit on treasures of King Midas, all that glitters is not gold

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King Midas is known as the man with the golden touch. Legend has it that everything he grasped turned to gold.

The myth has been related again and again, from the ancient Greeks, to Nathaniel Hawthorne, to Run DMC, to an auto repair company.

The real King Midas ruled the kingdom of Phrygia, in what is now Turkey, in the 8th century BC. He was entombed in one of the 124 burial mounds surrounding Gordion, an ancient city with a knotty history of its own.

Brian Rose of the University of Pennsylvania directs archaeological digs in Gordion. He has been inside the tombs of Phrygian kings, and there wasn’t any gold.

“It was intact — no looters had ever been here — and not one stick of gold was found in the burial chamber,” said Rose. “That was true of most of the elite burial mounds surrounding the city of Gordion.”

The chief industry of Gordion’s capital city was textiles, which may be the origin of the golden touch myth. Wealthy residents wore clothes coated with the mineral oxide goethite, which had a yellowish shine. In sunlight, it resembled gold.

Rose is the curator of “The Golden Age of King Midas,” now on view at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It features 230 artifacts from the Phrygian kingdom, including bronze pots and dishware for a funeral feast, pieces of a carved ivory throne, and a section of the oldest colored-pebble mosaic known to man, from the 9th century BC.

University of Pennsylvania archaeologists have been digging in Gordion for more 60 years. About 100 of the artifacts on display come from the museum’s own archive. The rest is on loan from museums in Turkey, Greece, and Chicago.

The exhibit also features a bottle of beer from Dogfish Head brewery in Delaware. Brewery founder, Sam Calagione, worked with the museum to reverse-engineer a funeral beverage based on nearly 3,000-year-old residue found at the bottom of the bronze pots. It was the dregs of a wine, beer and honey mead concoction that washed down a feast of roasted sheep at the funeral of King Midas’ father, Gordias.

The young Midas made a name for himself early in his reign by embarking on the largest public works project in the Middle East: a tomb for his deceased father. Made of wood and buried under 170 feet of dirt, the tomb of Gordias has survived the millennia. It is the oldest intact wooden structure in the world.

Despite his lack of a golden touch, King Midas became a hugely important figure in the ancient world. He was the only ruler at the time to expand his influence into neighboring kingdoms. From the west, a Greek princess became his wife, and he went on to forge political inroads in all other directions.

“He convinced city-states in southwest Turkey to revolt against Assyrian control. He was a thorn in the side of Assyrians,” said Rose. “He linked himself to an empire in northeastern Turkey called Urartu, in what is now Armenia. He created a power base more influential then that of his contemporaries.”

Rose included artifacts from the wide swath of Midas’ influence, including 8th century ivory excavated from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. Last year Nimrud was completed destroyed by ISIS, the militant Islamic state.

Rose, who will go back to Gordion this summer to continue the ongoing excavation and conservation efforts,  will send back video footage to update his exhibition.

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