Using what's known as a stable isotope test, a technique with growing potential in the field of medicine, the scientists report that the ancient king's nitrogen-rich remains suggest a diet rich in meat. Moreover, the pattern of decay within the underground tomb gives archaeologists a clearer image of the funeral feast that sent him to his rest 2,700 years ago.
Midas of Phrygia, who ruled around 700 B.C., is buried in the Tumulus Midas Mound at Gordion, Turkey. Inside the wood-lined room, discovered in 1957, is a cedar coffin containing the remains of the king, who was somewhere between 60 and 65 years old when he died, along with the remnants of wooden furniture, bowls and various textiles.
Although the tomb is still structurally sound, the wood in the burial chamber has been attacked by wood-decomposing soft-rot fungi, which consumes nitrogen.
"It could have been present in the wood. It could have been brought in at the time of the funeral," says lead author Timothy Filley, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "It may have thrived for millennia."
The researchers, including an archaeologist and a plant pathologist, were curious about a pattern of decay that seemed to be based on proximity to certain objects in the tomb, including the coffin and a wooden table.
Using samples of wood taken from around the tomb, Filley used his specialty in stable isotope biogeochemistry to search for patterns of decay in two stable forms of nitrogen in the wood. One is called 14N and the second is called 15N.
As nutrients move up the food chain, from plants to herbivores to carnivores, levels of 15N rise.
The researchers looked for the source of nutrients for the fungi, and whether the king's diet and a pattern of decay could be determined from the levels of 15N around the tomb.
"The king's body provided a rich nutrient source to allow for that long-term degradation," says Filley. "The wood underneath the king, where the king was degraded, had extremely high levels of 15N. What it tells us it that he was pretty high up on the food chain, so he was most likely a meat-eater."
That corresponds to what is known about dietary patterns in the region during the king's' era, says Filley.
Midas' 15N-enriched remains were so obvious that they left a chemical footprint in the tomb. "We could track it as it moved through the coffin and then into the floor and then through the floorboards," says Filley. "It left an isotope shadow of him in the wood."
Significant decay was also seen in a table that the researchers believe held the funeral feast offerings. Previous studies have suggested that the funeral feast for King Midas included a wine-beer-mead punch, a lentil stew spiced with anise or fennel, and barbecued goat or lamb.
"They would leave the food in the bowls behind and seal up the tomb," says Filley, whose report appears in the Oct. 23 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Noreen Tuross, a research biochemist at the Smithsonian Institution who is familiar with the study, points out that the technique used in it is not limited to historical studies.
"There have been some uses for stable isotopes in the medical field," she says. For example, Tuross notes, carbon isotope tracers are used to determine whether ulcer patients are infected with the Helicobactor pylori bacterium.
Tuross says that the research shows that there is more information in archaeological discoveries than previously thought.
"We think of the grand things that are in there," says Tuross. "But I think this paper and others that are coming along show us that, if you do some really fine-scale and especially spatially oriented analyses, there's really a lot more information than we think of."
"[These sites] have a history not only of who was put in them and the culture they represent, but they have a chemical history of their own that can often be quite informative."
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For more general information about King Midas, check out Phrygians.com.