Most readers are familiar with the legend of King Midas and his fabled “golden touch.” According to the tale, the god Dionysus granted Midas one wish and he asked that everything he touched be turned to gold. Soon he realized that he could not eat or drink and begged to be released from his wish. This was accomplished by his bathing in the Pactolus River where, as legend has it, traces of gold still can be found.
What people might not know is that King Midas was a real person, a warrior king who lived in Phrygia, a region in central Turkey, around 700 B.C. Midas made news in archaeological circles recently when his funeral feast was reproduced at a $150-per-plate fund-raiser at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. How researchers managed to learn just what was served at the 2,700-year-old feast makes for an interesting scientific detective story.
The burial tomb of King Midas was excavated in 1957 at Gordion, an ancient city about 60 miles south of Ankara, Turkey. According to a brief article by Patrick McGovern in the Dec. 23, 1999, issue of Nature, the tomb is the earliest known, intact wooden structure in the world, dating to about 700 B.C. It contained the remains of a 65-year-old male lying in state on richly dyed textiles in a coffin made from a hollow log.
The tomb was filled with fine wooden furniture and large numbers of cooking, eating and drinking utensils. It was unearthed by an archaeologist named Rodney Young who, according to Jessica Gorman in the Nov. 4 issue of Science News, completely misinterpreted what he had found. Young wrote that Midas was lying in a four-poster bed surrounded by furniture and food to use in the afterlife.
In 1981, archaeologist Elizabeth Simpson traveled to Turkey to see the tomb’s contents for herself because she could not make Young’s analysis fit with photos taken of the site. She quickly realized that the “bed” was actually a hollow-log coffin that had been supported on a bier. The food supplies were actually remains from a funerary feast. She realized that the king’s body had been on display outside during the feast and then moved into the tomb. The furniture, actually banquet tables, and utensils used by the mourners were stacked in with Midas and the tomb sealed.
The tomb’s contents included 18 pottery jars containing either a dry yellow powder or a brownish mass that was the long-decayed remains of the funeral feast, along with dozens of drinking bowls coated with a hard, shiny layer, all that remained of some ancient beverage. Simpson became curious as to the nature of the funeral feast and approached Patrick McGovern of the Pennsylvania Museum for help in identifying the residues.
McGovern already had made a name for himself when he identified stains on an Iranian jar dating back 7,400 years as a wine mixed with tree resin to add sweetness. Compared to the merest traces he was used to working with, Midas’ tomb provided McGovern with an embarrassment of riches, nearly 5 pounds of food residue and 1 pound of beverage residue.
A battery of sophisticated analytical instruments soon identified the residues. Three fatty acids identified the meat as coming from either goats or sheep, while the bulk of what was certainly a stew consisted of lentils. The stew also contained anise or fennel spice and olive oil.
The drink was more interesting. It contained tartaric acid, a sure indicator of wine, beerstone from barley beer, and beeswax that likely came from fermented honey. The mixture surprised McGovern, who said the drink was traditional to the Balkans and northern Greece. He says it may prove a valuable clue to the origins of the Phrygian peoples governed by King Midas.
Somewhere along the line, McGovern got the idea of reproducing the feast. Chef Pamela Horowitz prepared the rather simple stew, while using her imagination to supplement it with salads and sweets common to the area. The drink was prepared by master brewer Sam Calagione from white muscat grape wine, English barley and thyme honey. He brewed the mix to an alcohol content of 7.5 percent, about midway between wine and beer, and threw in Indian saffron to give it the yellow that color analysis said was present.
Last September, the stew was served to a group of wealthy museum donors along with “King Midas Golden Elixir.” The ancient brew will never be available to the rest of us; as Calagione says, “It’s just too expensive to market commercially.”
Clair Wood taught chemistry and physics for more than 10 years at Eastern Maine Technical College in Bangor.