STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
@dutchgodshalk on Twitter
PHILADELPHIA >> King Midas, ruler of the Phrygian kingdom, was the golden boy of the Iron Age — a man of great wealth and renown.
It’s been said that Midas had the Golden Touch, an ability bestowed on him by the god Dionysus. Anything the king came in contact with, no matter how ordinary or worthless it was, would transform at once into flaxen treasure.
There are many versions of the tale, some more pleasant than others. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his “Politics,” drew a grim end to the tale, with Midas dying of hunger as every morsel of food turned to gold on his lips.
To this day, the myth of “The Midas Touch” lives on in popular culture, in countless books, films and songs — even in the marketing campaign of a full-service auto repair chain.
For some, the story is a cautionary tale, warning of the shortsightedness of avarice, the perils of insatiable greed. For others still, it remains a desirable dream scenario: riches beyond one’s most extravagant fantasies, all within arm’s reach.
Considering King Midas ruled between 750 and 700 BCE — around the time when Homer’s “The Iliad” was first written down — this amounts to one seriously long legacy.
But how much truth is there to the myth? Who was this King Midas really?
For the last 65 years, Penn Museum archaeologists have been excavating Gordion, the capitol city of the Phrygian kingdom — located south of the Black Sea in what is now the Republic of Turkey — in search of answers to the most burning questions about King Midas, as well as a more dimensional view of the society over which he ruled.
And now, from Feb. 13 through Nov. 27, the findings of those many decades of work will be on display in the Penn Museum. “The Golden Age of King Midas,” featuring a remarkable collection of 150 objects, including more than 120 on loan from four museums in the Republic of Turkey, offers a compelling view of what life was like when Midas held power nearly 3,000 years ago.
“As we prepare to open this exhibition, this remarkable collaboration with the Republic of Turkey, I’m excited to be able to share the Gordion and King Midas story with you,” said Williams Director of Penn Museum Dr. Julian Siggers during an exhibition preview Monday, Feb. 8.
After “65 years of excavation, starting in the 1950s and continuing today, Gordion encapsulates, probably better than any other Penn excavation, what we do,” he added. Using “ground-breaking scientific techniques that have set the standard for excavation,” the work done at the Gordion site “substantially added to our knowledge of the ancient periods.”
Among the numerous ancient objects on display in the Penn exhibition are bronze cauldrons and beer jugs, gold jewelry, a section from a pebble mosaic floor, a massive stone relief bearing the form of a winged genie — and a full stock of items exhumed from the tomb of King Midas’ own father, Gordios. Known as Tumulus MM, the tomb is the oldest standing wooden building in the world, according to materials from the museum.
Through these, and many more artifacts, life during the 8th century BCE takes shape for museum guests. As the timeline of Midas’ reign unfolds, ancient anecdotes are revealed. The lives of royalty and servants, of entire kingdoms of the Iron Age, are made tangible — and even, in little ways, relatable.
“We don’t just exhibit objects,” said curator Dr. C. Brian Rose during the event preview, “we dig them up. We make sure they’re conserved. We write the narratives that we can construct. We try to bring them to life.”
And helping to bring life to these artifacts are clever touches of technology: an illuminated model of Gordion that details a great fire that burned through the citadel; a user-controlled virtual tour of Tumulus MM, set up like some ancient arcade game.
What’s more, a reconstructed bust of Gordios himself is on display, a plaster cast made according to the man’s own skeletal remains. Putting a literal face to the name, the bust also suggests what King Midas might have looked like, if the king in any way resembled his father.
Throughout the exhibition are various touch-screen presentations offering short audio and visual lectures, including an interactive “Myth Book” that walks guests through some of the most famous stories about King Midas — including the myth of his Golden Touch, the truth of which is quickly explained.
According to the Myth Book, the Phrygian people coated the fabric of their clothes in goethite, a pigment that produces a golden sheen. So, to an observer, it would seem that all over his kingdom, Midas was surrounded by gold.
Like a game of Telephone played out over thousands of years, some yellow-hued clothing eventually gave life to rumors of a king’s God-given golden touch.
That’s a small spoiler, true. But, rest assured, it doesn’t give too much away — the Myth Book is located mere feet from the exhibition’s entrance; the remnants of an entire kingdom lie beyond it.