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Chemistry Used to Unlock Secrets in Archeological Remains - 2002-04-27

High-tech chemistry is unlocking ancient secrets.

"Archeological chemistry is taking archeological remains - it could be pottery, metals, also ancient organic remains and applying our chemical techniques that we have available, such as infrared, liquid chromatography, to figure out what was the original material, how it was made, what implications it has culturally," explains Patrick McGovern, one of the leading practitioners of this new field. The senior research scientist with the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has paid many visits to the site where King Midas is believed to have been buried, around 700 B.C. It is near the town called Gordion, right in the center of Turkey, where some three centuries later, Alexander the Great used his sword to cut the "Gordian knot" that was tying down a royal chariot.

"The site is very rich archeologically, has been excavated for the last 50 years by the University of Pennsylvania Museum. It has a large palace area with rooms, some of which are thought to have been kitchens for making the food for the palace, with jars of barley and other goods. Also, it has a whole series of tombs in which the burial was done in a special wooden chamber beneath a very large mound. It's almost as if you cut it yesterday and put the structure together. It is the earliest intact human building made of wood in the world. The tomb had the body of the king laid out on a layer of textiles. And then, what is thought to be the largest Iron Age drinking set of 157 bronze vessels, including means to serve the beverage, to drink it," Mr. McGovern said.

The funerary feast was held before the burial of the king. After they had finished their meal, the people who wanted to pay respects to Midas gathered all the leftovers, the dishes, and the drinking vessels, and placed them in the tomb chamber, along with the body of the king. Chemical analysis of the residue of the meal determined that it was a hearty lamb or goat and lentil stew, spiced with anise and some pepper substances a meal that Professor McGovern said one might find today in an English pub. except for the drink.

"The drink that was used to wash down the stew was a very unusual mixture of wine made from grapes, beer made from barley, and what we call mead, made from honey. We thought if it was good for Midas, it would be interesting for the modern drinker to try. We had to make some assumptions of how it was processed, whether you do each beverage separately and mix them together, or do it in one fermentation, which is what we finally selected. The professional tasters, who have tried it, said it is extremely aromatic and delicious, unlike anything they had before," the professor said.

As remarkable as the tomb itself is the fact that the stew and brew residues have survived 27 centuries. Professor McGovern credited the atmosphere within the tomb chamber, which has two separate wooden walls, one of cedar, the other of pine, with stone between them. Covered with a mound of dirt, the chamber was essentially an air-tight vault.

"Once the oxygen and water vapor that would nourish micro-organisms had been used up, basically it was left intact for the last 2,700 years. So the organic materials just could not come under attack," he explains. "The drinking vessels were made of bronze, there was no absorption of liquid into that material. Pottery would have had absorption. There was residue left after the liquid had evaporated, a very intense, yellowish residue on the inside of some of the drinking vessels. That's what we sampled."

For chemistry Professor Joseph Piatt of Wisconsin's Carroll College, using archeological chemistry to reconstruct King Midas's funerary feast is more than a scientific curiosity.

"Specifically, it was interesting with the focus on food and beer, reconstructing what they ate and drank back then. Knowledge of history, of what societies were like, might help us as we move into the future. We don't want to forget what happened in the past, or history will repeat itself," Professor Piatt said.

He said the research on King Midas' Tomb demonstrates the power of forensic chemistry to open new windows on ancient cultures and societies and to draw new lessons from the human experience.