Midas Mound
The Midas Mound stands 60 meters high.

Genetic history of ancient wood revealed in King Midas’s tomb

  Dr. Scott Rogers

  Dr. Scott Rogers

BGSU biologist Dr. Scott Rogers, along with a Turkish colleague, has made a foray into the tomb of the legendary King Midas, seeking to determine if the huge timbers and logs lining the ancient burial site are Lebanon cedar, or perhaps a variety that has vanished altogether.

While most people are aware of the legend of King Midas—who foolishly wished that everything he touched be turned to gold, only to find to his horror that that included his beloved daughter, his garden and even his food—few realize that there was a real King Midas, who ruled the people of Mushki (known to the Greeks as Phrygia) between about 740 and 696 B.C.

The tomb was discovered in 1959 by a team from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology making excavations at the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordion in central Turkey. Described as one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, the Midas Mound, now a tourist site, looms over the modern village of Yassihöyük and the village cemetery.

  Interior of the tomb
   The interior of the tomb is lined with logs and timbers.
The mound is about 60 meters high and covered with earth and grass atop a heavy layer of rocks. The royal burial chamber is deep underground and, compared with the 100-degree July heat outside, was about 60 degrees, Rogers said. A double wall of tree logs and timbers surrounds the inner chamber, the earliest known intact wooden structure in the world.

Rogers, an expert in ancient DNA and the extraction and preservation of nucleic acids, and Dr. Zeki Kaya, a plant geneticist from the Department of Biological Sciences at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, set out to determine if the logs are indeed Taurus, or Lebanon, cedar. Because of its resistance to rot, the highly prized wood was widely used in ships, buildings and tombs for important people in the community.

Extracting the DNA from the 4,000-year-old wood samples they collected has been a long and exacting process, Rogers said. Using sterile scalpels, they cut through many layers to find relatively fresh material, which then had to be decontaminated through a many-step process. “Fungi, mouse and human contaminants are a big problem,” he said. The DNA they found was of low concentration and degraded, but using a technique called polymerase chain reaction amplificationpolymerase chain reactor, they were able to amplify it a million times in five or six hours.

The ancient DNA sequences were compared with available fresh conifer-tissue sequences, and with samples from the GeneBank on the National Center for Biotechnology Information Web site.

Of the 46 samples they looked at, only two turned out to be cedar. “More samples and more DNA sequencing will be required to make a definite identification of the type of wood,” he predicted.

The two scientists have submitted an article describing their work and findings to the journal Silvae Genetica.the journal

Today there is no Lebanon cedar within 150 kilometers of the burial site, but in King Midas’s time it had a broader range, Rogers said.

The study could reveal whether the cedar forest was in fact continuous from north to south, including the Gordion site, but was depleted by overcutting and overgrazing.

“There could have been bad forestry practices then, just as there are today,” Rogers offered as a possible explanation for the disappearance of the wood from the area. Also, “humans can take a species down so far that if a disease blightor a fire comes along, it may canbecome extinct.”

The researchers would also like to identify which population of cedar the logs come from and how they were transported to the site.

Unlike the region’s former rulers, the Hittites, who kept very careful records of events in their empire, the Phrygians did not, Rogers said, which makes the job of tracking commerce and the use of natural resources more difficult.

Ultimately, if the cedar turns out to be from an extinct population, the alleles, or genetic pairs, could be recovered, write Rogers and Kaya. This might be important to the future of this species.

Rogers and Kaya first met when both were at the State University of New York at Syracuse, where Kaya had a six-month has a aFulbright fellowship. “We’ve traded students back and forth,”Rogers may apply for a grant to spend about six months in Turkey pursuing the Midas tomb question.

In addition to the ancient wood, the tomb has yielded a bounty of other finds that speak of life and funerary practices during Midas’s time. According to the University of Pennsylvania Web site, upon breaking through the timber wall, the excavators were met with an amazing sight: King Midas laid out in state on a multi-layered pile of purple- and blue-dyed textiles inside his coffin.

“The riches in bronze in the king's tomb were matched by a wealth of organic residues left in the drinking vessels,” the site says. “The team was able to reconstruct the Midas Tomb funerary feast in minute detail using such methods as infrared spectroscopy, liquid and gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry.”

December 12, 2005