Reasons the Real-Life King Midas Was a Boss

You may know King Midas from his mythologically attested golden touch, but did you know that a few rich kings by that name really existed during the Iron Age? Cue a visit to Philadelphia's Penn Museum, which has excavated Tumulus MM, a giant tomb near the important Anatolian city of Gordion, Midas's hometown. In its new exhibition, "The Golden Age of King Midas," Penn resurrects this larger-than-life ancient monarch who ruled supreme -- in this world and the next.

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His Tomb Was Absolutely Amazing

Gordion, Tumulus MM, in 1957, showing the excavation trench / tunnel. For scale, note the horse and wagon on the track in front of the burial mound. Penn Museum Gordion Archive, image # G-2681

After Penn began excavating at Gordion in 1950, its archaeologists came across Tumulus (Latin for "mound") MM. This artificial mound, over 160 feet high, contained just one tomb: a pretty important ruler, no doubt.

Was this the burial spot of the mythical King Midas, identified by some with a prominent Phrygian leader named Mita, lord of the ​Mushki, attested in Assyrian annals? Unfortunately, the wood found in MM was dated, thanks to fancy dendrochronology, to a few decades before we first meet Mita/Midas, about 740 B.C. or slightly later. Perhaps this was the resting place of his dad or grandfather.

The old man buried inside was aged about 60 to 65, placed on woven textiles in a log coffin. He was surrounded by wooden furniture and many, many vessels for food and drink, which were probably used by mourners (some of whose names we may know) for one last big party before they lowered their leader into the ground for eternity!

Whoever this individual was, he was a leader of enough power, influence, and wealth to merit a huge monument like this one. Although other tumuli do exist near Gordion, attesting to a common cultural burial pattern, none match MM for height or magnificence.

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He Feasted For Eternity

Gordion, Tumulus MM, 1957: showing the south wall of the tomb chamber, bronze cauldrons on iron tripods, and bronze drinking bowls. Penn Museum Gordion Archive, image # G-2390

What was inside that gigantic tomb? Everything you could ever need (minus edible food, of course) to feast for eternity. The wooden tables at which the funeral banquet would have been held, ones that were buried with the king, have since disintegrated, but take a look at the gorgeous ​cauldrons (pictured) and ornate bowls and drinking cups left for Midas.

The chamber included three giant cauldrons -- suitable for epic feasts in the hereafter -- with attachments depicting the heads of real and mythical creatures, along with a bunch of smaller cauldrons to mix wine. 

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Midas Drank and Was Very Merry

Sieve-spouted ceramic drinking jug from Gordion, Tumulus P, dated ca. 770–760 BC. Sieve-spouted jugs were used for filtering and drinking beer at elite Phrygian feasts such as funeral banquets. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara (Inventory no. 12800. Gordion inventory no. 3934-P-1432; TumP-78). Photograph by Ahmet Remzi Erdoğan, Photographer of the Anatolian Civilizations Museum, Ankara

What's more important in the afterlife than making sure you're properly tipsy for eternity? Midas was buried not just with items to store his food and drink, but jugs, bowls, and every utensil in between he could ever need to consume delicious things. Around 157 vessels were found in total, including one hundred omphalos drinking bowls, used by celestial guests, along with 31 jugs, 19 bowls with handles, and even more fancy bowls, all of copper alloy. Sadly, none were made of gold, despite Midas's shiny reputation.

In a fascinating twist, archaeologists, including "Dr. Pat" McGovern, were able to analyze the remnants of the alcoholic drinks imbibed at Midas's funeral feast. The verdict? A tasty combination of grape wine, honey mead, and beer made from barley. In fact, Dr. Pat, along with the good folks at Dogfish Head Brewery, came up with a modern twist on this ancient beverage: the Midas Touch.

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He Knew How to Pin It Down

Double-pinned fibula with shield (Type XII,7), from Tumulus MM, dated ca. 740 BC. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara (Inventory no. 18454. Gordion inventory no. 4826-B-820; MM-188). Photograph by Ahmet Remzi Erdoğan, Photographer of the Anatolian Civilizations Museum, Ankara.

Tumulus MM didn't just have leftovers from a meal; it also contained many brooches, called fibulae after the Latin word. Nearly 200 of these bronze pins were discovered in this tomb alone. Whether they were ornamental or practical in function -- or some combination of the two -- we may not know, but this king must have needed to keep his clothes on somehow. 

Interestingly, these pins don't really appear in the archaeological record until this time: the eighth century B.C. What might that mean for Midas? Well, that he was on the cutting edge of fashion, for one, but that, as we already know, Gordion was a crossroads of international trade. Phrygian-style fibulae began to show up all over the Mediterranean in the succeeding decades and centuries; perhaps Midas helped make them stylish.

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He Might Have Rubbed Elbows With Priests

Silver figurine from Tumulus D at Bayındır (in southern Turkey), dated late 8th - early 7th century BC. Antalya Museum (Inventory no. 1.21.87 ). Photograph by Kate Quinn (The Penn Museum)

Okay, so this priest didn't exactly come from Midas's tomb (namely, it didn't), and it's a bit later than our king lived, but it's amazing nonetheless. This silver figurine, found at Bayındır in Lycia, Turkey, was found in a tomb dubbed Tumulus D,  where a high-status woman was buried. The statuette appears to depict a priest of potentially ambiguous gender and sexuality.

It's clear the figurine this represented a person of great significance in the spiritual realm. The statuette wears a polos, a headdress common in depictions of Near Eastern goddesses. Some individuals theorize that this statuette is a eunuch, perhaps an early version of the famed Galli, castrated priests of the Phrygian Mother Goddess Cybele. Others have noted the individual's "female costume" and lack of a beard, as well, but our modern gender binaries might need to be put aside to consider this fascinating individual.