King Midas and His Golden Touch at the Penn Museum

The Golden Age of King Midas exhibited in Philadelphia


King Midas, who inspired the legendary story of King Midas and his golden touch, ruled over Phrygia from his capital at Gordion. Here, the massive burial mound known as Tumulus MM can been seen in the distance at Gordion in central Turkey. The tomb is thought to be the final resting place of King Gordios, Midas’s father. Photo: 1958, Penn Museum Gordion Archive, G-3312.

Everyone knows the story of King Midas and his golden touch. In Greco-Roman mythology, the Phrygian king Midas was offered anything he wished from Bacchus, the god of wine, for showing kindness to Bacchus’s teacher, Silenus. Midas wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. While it amazed Midas that everything he then touched became gold—from a twig to a husk of corn—he soon discovered just how reckless his request was, for he could not eat or drink anything but gold (Ovid, Metamorphoses, XI:85–145).

The historical King Midas inspired this character in Classical mythology. King Midas ruled over a group of people known as the Phrygians in central Anatolia (modern Turkey). It was during the reign of Midas (c. 750–700 B.C.E.) that Phrygia reached the height of its wealth and power. Indeed, archaeological excavations at Gordion, the capital of Phrygia, revealed a massive citadel complex and a series of wealthy tombs dating to the reign of Midas. At the end of the eighth century, the citadel was destroyed in a major fire, possibly due to the invasion of the Cimmerians from the east.

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On February 13, 2016, in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology opened the exhibit The Golden Age of King Midas. Objects from a spectacular tomb at Gordion believed to belong to King Gordios, Midas’s father, are on display, including large bronze cauldrons (likely used to hold beer), bronze drinking bowls and intricate bronze fibulae (ancient safety pins). Also included in the exhibit are funerary objects from other royal tombs and a late-ninth-century B.C.E. pebble mosaic floor (the oldest known in the world) from Gordion as well as dazzling artifacts from the neighboring Scythians, Lydians, Urartians, Assyrians and Persians.


Inside Tumulus MM, archaeologists found an assemblage of artifacts from a funeral feast for the deceased Phrygian ruler—likely Midas’s father—including bronze cauldrons and bronze drinking bowls. Photo: 1957, Penn Museum Gordion Archive, G-2390.

In the November/December 2001 issue of Archaeology Odyssey, G. Kenneth Sams, Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and project director of the Gordion excavations, describes the Phrygians’ fine metalworking techniques and the cosmopolitan atmosphere in which they lived:

The Phrygians’ bronze- and iron-working brought them into contact with peoples to the west and east. The raw materials—copper, tin, iron ore—may have come from as far away as eastern Europe. Their production techniques, however, show an indebtedness to the Phoenicians, Syrians and Hittites. Some of the bronzes, such as a pair of large cauldrons with winged human creatures attached to their rims, are probably eastern imports from the Syro-Hittite cultural zone. Most others, however, including the numerous mold-made fibulae on Midas’s burial shroud [now thought to belong to Midas’s father], were probably made in Phrygian workshops. Among the more sumptuous bronze objects are elaborate belts with leather backings. Three examples from [a] child’s tomb are engraved with intricate meander motifs resembling the designs of woodworkers and weavers.


A bronze double-pinned fibula (ancient safety pin) from Tumulus MM. Photo: Penn Museum Gordion Archive, G-2561.

The Golden Age of King Midas showcases the magnificent objects that have come to light in the Gordion excavations, which began in 1950 under the auspices of the Penn Museum and are ongoing today. Running from February 13 through November 27, 2016, the exhibit features 150 artifacts from the Penn Museum’s own collection as well as from Turkish museums in Ankara, Istanbul, Antalya and Gordion.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on January 15, 2016.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Hierapolis and the Gateway to Hell
The Last Days of Hattusa
The Decline of the Neo-Assyrian Empire


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