Few ancient myths are as widely popular as that of greedy King Midas, the Phrygian ruler granted by the god Dionysus the power to turn anything he touched into gold. Midas had extended hospitality to Dionysus’s companion, Silenus, who had fallen asleep in the royal garden. The king invited him to stay for a few days at his palace, and when Dionysus learned of the king’s kindness, the grateful God granted Midas’s wish to be able to turn anything to gold.
It was a tragic mistake, as Midas quickly learned after he first turned his daughter and, later, his dinner to gold . . . nearly starving as a result. After the king beseeched the God to rescind his gift, Dionysus complied and let Midas wash the curse off in the river Pactolus.
This revelatory exhibition, “The Golden Age of King Midas,” at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, not only tells about the era when King Midas ruled the Phrygian kingdom in what is now central Turkey, but also suggests how the myth might have originated.
Rich in both historical objects and digital amplifications of the story, the show proposes a realistic basis for Midas’s love of gold. On view are 100 objects from the museum’s own collection and 123 borrowed from four different Turkish museums. Many of the objects that were in the burial chamber are believed to have belonged to Midas’s father, King Gordios. Among the most important is a piece of textile that was part of the shroud covering the skeleton’s body. Archaeologists have discovered that it is coated with an iron oxide called goethite, which would have lent the fabric a glowing golden color. Mary Ballard, senior textile conservator at the Smithsonian Institution, first made the connection between the material and the effect of the coating.
The archeologists have used the objects on display, ranging from a simple footed bronze jug and a bronze bowl with lifting handles to an elaborate gold necklace with more than a dozen gold acorns from neighboring Lydia, to provide new insights into ancient life.