How archaeologists found the origin of the legend of King Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold

King Midas in a frame from the TV series Once Upon A Time

One of the best-known legends of antiquity is that of the Phrygian king Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold. According to Aristotle, he died of starvation when it was impossible to touch any food without transforming it into the precious metal.

The problem is that there are at least three kings with that name. The first is that of the legend, who would have founded with his father the city of Gordium, the Phrygian capital (today the site of Yassıhüyük about 80 kilometers southwest of Ankara in Turkey). Both would have been responsible for tying the famous Gordian knot that Alexander the Great later cut with his sword.

Aerial view of the ancient Gordium site / photo prdyapim – Shutterstock

Both father and son would have lived around the second millennium B.C., that is, before the Trojan War. However, the Iliad does not mention either of the two and does mention other Phrygian kings. Herodotus seems to imply that both lived before the emigration of the Phrygians from Europe to Asia Minor, when he places a Midas garden in Thrace:

So the brothers escaped into another part of Macedonia, and took up their abode near the place called “the Gardens of Midas, son of Gordias.” In these gardens there are roses which grow of themselves, so sweet that no others can come near them, and with blossoms that have as many as sixty petals apiece. It was here, according to the Macedonians, that Silenus was made a prisoner. Above the gardens stands a mountain called Bermius, which is so cold that none can reach the top. Here the brothers made their abode; and from this place by, degrees they conquered all Macedonia

Herodotus, History VIII-CXXXVIII
The MM tumulus, and to the right in the background other minors / photo University of Pennsylvania

Another Midas ruled Phrygia at the end of the 8th century B.C., committing suicide, according to Strabo drinking bull’s blood, when the Cimmerians razed Gordium around 710 B.C., and who appears in Assyrian texts as Mita asking for help from King Sargon II.

And those Cimmerians whom they also call Trerans (or some tribe or other of the Cimmerians) often overran the countries on the right of the Pontus and those adjacent to them, at one time having invaded Paphlagonia, and at another time Phrygia even, at which time Midas drank bull’s blood, they say, and thus went to his doom

Strabo, Geography I-3.21

Most historians believe that this is the Midas that, according to Herodotus, donated a throne to the sanctuary of Delphi, being the first foreigner to make an offering.

Excepting Midas, son of Gordias, king of Phrygia, Gyges was the first of the barbarians whom we know to have sent offerings to Delphi.  Midas dedicated the royal throne whereon he was accustomed to sit and administer justice, an object well worth looking at. It lies in the same place as the goblets presented by Gyges. The Delphians call the whole of the silver and the gold which Gyges dedicated, after the name of the donor, Gygian

Herodotus, History I-XIV
The MM Tumulus / photo prdyapim – Shutterstock

And the third Midas is the one that Herodotus mentions as Adrastus’ grandfather, who took refuge in Croesus’ Lydian court after accidentally killing his brother. Croesus ruled between 560 and 546 B.C., which gives us a mid-6th century B.C. chronology for this Midas.

Croesus granted the request, and went through all the customary rites, after which he asked the suppliant of his birth and country, addressing him as follows:—”Who art thou, stranger, and from what part of Phrygia fleddest thou to take refuge at my hearth? And whom, moreover, what man or what woman, hast thou slain?” “Oh! king,” replied the Phrygian, “I am the son of Gordias, son of Midas. I am named Adrastus. The man I unintentionally slew was my own brother. For this my father drove me from the land, and I lost all. Then fled I here to thee.” “Thou art the offspring,” Croesus rejoined, “of a house friendly to mine, and thou art come to friends. Thou shalt want for nothing so long as thou abidest in my dominions. Bear thy misfortune as easily as thou mayest, so will it go best with thee.” Thenceforth Adrastus lived in the palace of the king

Herodotus, History I-XXXV

The location of Gordium, the Phrygian capital, was unknown until the end of the 19th century. It would be rediscovered in 1892 when the engineers building the branch of the Berlin-Baghdad railway found in the place, which was being used as a quarry, numerous artificial tumuli with tombs. They immediately informed the philologist Alfred Körte who travelled there and correctly identified the site. Eight years later, in 1900, he returned with his brother Gustav, who was an archaeologist, initiating excavations. They were only there for a year.

Work came to a halt until 1950, when it was taken over by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of Rodney Young (who had previously been an ally spy in Greece during World War II). Excavations continue today with C. Brian Rose, professor of archaeology at the same university, in charge. Rose is also co-director of the Trojan excavations.

Entrance tunnel to the tomb / photo Valery Shanin – Shutterstock

In 1957 Young’s team found a chamber tomb under a tumulus 53 meters high and 300 meters in diameter. It would have been nothing out of the ordinary, since at the Gordium site there are more than 100 tumuli of different periods and sizes, except that what they discovered inside was truly exceptional: a royal burial with the remains of the funeral banquet and the best collection of Iron Age vases ever discovered.

The tomb was unusually large, 5.15 by 6.2 meters in area by 3.25 meters in height. Above the remains of a wooden sarcophagus was a skeleton belonging to a man 1.59 meters tall and about 60 years old, lying on a thick pile of blue and purple cloths. His skull was deformed and lengthened by the application of bandages and boards since he was a child (a practice that was a symbol of royalty). It was, according to Rose, clearly a tomb built for a king, with the best carpenters, the best engineers…they built it to last forever, and somehow it did, at least for more than 2,700 years. So, although there was no documentary evidence, they called it Tumulus MM, the tomb of Midas.

The skeleton of the “king” on the pile of cloths / photo University of Pennsylvania

The floor was made of cedar, the interior walls of pine and the exteriors of juniper. The dating of these woods by radiocarbon and dendrochronology indicated that it had been built around 740 B.C., about 30 years before the death of that Midas who had to face the Cimmerians and committed suicide seeing his city fall. It could therefore be, according to the experts and almost certainly, his father’s tomb.

On it was a large inlaid table and fourteen smaller ones, in which three large decorated vessels, 167 bowls, ladles and bronze pitchers were arranged. Some of the bowls bear the name of their owner.

Objects inside the tomb / photo University of Pennsylvania

Luckily for the archaeologists, they never bothered to wash the dishes. At the beginning of the 21st century, this made it possible to analyse food remains using techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, liquid and gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry. For the first time in history a whole meal could be reconstructed: spicy stew of lamb or goat on the grill with lentils and touches of honey and olive oil. The drink was a mixture of wine, barley beer and aquamiel that, according to Patrick McGovern, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Biomolecular Archaeology Project who analyzed the samples, had an intensely yellow color, like gold.

Traces of food inside the tomb / photo University of Pennsylvania

But there is more, because from the analysis of the remains of the skeleton shroud fabrics, and other fragments of clothing found in the tomb, archaeologists believe they have discovered the origin of the legend of that first Midas we were talking about at the beginning of the article, which turned everything he touched into gold.

And is that in the tissues was found a pigment of iron oxide called Goethite (α-Fe3+O(OH)). It is a subtranslucent and opaque mineral, with reddish-brown or yellowish colorations that shows an adamantine or silky shine, named after the poet Goethe since 1806.

Goethite / photo Eurico Zimbres in Wikimedia Commons

According to Professor Rose this may be the key to Midas’ legendary golden touch. Not that the Phrygians had much gold, in fact very little has been found at the site, but they literally wore it… garments that looked golden as they walked through the streets of the city. If this custom of treating the garments was ancient, any foreign visitor, seeing the clothes of the Phrygians shining like this, would have thought that they were made of gold. And to explain that phenomenal fact would have been born the legend of Midas, a legend that the kings themselves would have propitiated, adopting the same name generation after generation, even as a title.

Work continues on Gordio in search of the authentic tomb of King Midas. So far only 44 of the 124 identified tumuli have been excavated, so it is possible that in the coming years we will have more pleasant surprises.

Sources: Historia (Heródoto) / Geografía (Estrabón) / Beyond the golden touch / The Golden Touch of Midas (Patrick E. MacGovern) / The Gordion Archaeological Project / Wikipedia.