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Tales from the well-made crypt

by Rowan Hooper

Fifty years ago, archaeologists used an oil-rig drill to bore 53 meters below the surface of a mound in Gordion, Turkey, the ancient capital of Phrygia. Underneath the limestone-rich earth was the oldest intact wooden structure in the world, a 5 x 6 meter chamber dating from the eighth century B.C. The archaeologists tunneled through a double wall of logs and timber to reach the inner chamber, where, along with a stash of bronze feasting implements and wooden furniture, they found the body of a man.

Researchers agree that, given the date and location of the tomb and the riches it contained, the body is that of King Midas. He died between the age of 60 and 65, and he was well-fed. In fact, as scientists report this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, his diet might be the cause of the unusual type of fungal growth seen in his tomb.

Gordian carpenters knew what they were doing. Decay-resistant cedar was used for the floor and the coffin, and huge juniper logs protected the pine walls of the inner chamber. Almost entirely sealed off from the outside world, the tomb was, for its age, well-preserved, but that same isolation produced selection conditions that favored the growth of an unusual type of decay-organism.

Modern buildings are most often attacked by Basidiomycota fungi, which thrive in damp conditions. Some alkaline water was seeping through the limestone soil, but the tomb of Midas was, for the most part, dry for the 2,700 years before it was breached by archaeologists. These dry conditions inhibited the growth of Basidiomycota, but posed no problem for soft-rot fungi. This type of fungus doesn’t usually cause extensive damage because its growth is limited by nitrogen availability, but the decay in the tomb is such that scientists believe that soft-rot fungi proliferated there for centuries, maybe even millennia. Where did all the nitrogen come from to allow the fungus to spread throughout the entire tomb?

Midas was buried with a full funerary feast. Bronze (not gold, surprisingly) caldrons contain traces of a potent drink made from barley beer, grape wine and honey mead (it was a good party — there were three caldrons, each of 150 liters). The feast was dominated by a spicy stew made from lentils and barbecued goat or sheep.

Thomas Filley and colleagues from the Carnegie Institute of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory, in D.C., measured the isotope “signature” of the nitrogen in different parts of the tomb. Nitrogen from different sources has a slightly different composition, which enabled the scientists to deduce the original source of that found in the tomb. It turns out that the fungi had been feasting on the corpse of the king.

The king’s body was loaded with an isotope of nitrogen, indicating that he lived on a diet rich in meat. Over the centuries, the nitrogen from the king’s decaying body was gradually released, and cycled by the fungi through the tomb’s wooden structure.

Contrary to legend, Midas didn’t die from the golden touch, his food turning to gold as he tried to eat. He had no problems eating. So much so that the decay of his final resting place was fueled by the meaty richness of his kingly body.

The ancient Egyptians knew better, as we see in a second paper published this week. The Egyptians knew that moisture causes decay, so when they buried their kings, they removed the internal organs of the bodies. The brain was extracted through the nose, the eyes replaced with beads and the organs preserved in special jars. Only the heart, thought to be the center of the self, was left. The body was dried with salt, carefully wrapped in bandages, coated with warm resin and wrapped again (Tutankhamen was wrapped in 12 layers).

Stephen Buckley and Richard Evershed, of the University of Bristol, England, braved the ancient curses of the mummies to unravel the mysteries of the preservation of the Pharaohs. Dating back to 2,600 B.C., the preservation techniques developed by the ancient Egyptians were far more complex than those used in the tomb of Midas. Buckley and Evershed’s paper, published today in Nature, is the first survey using modern investigative chemical techniques of the process of mummification.

The researchers used minute samples from 13 mummies spanning more than 2,000 years of Egyptian history, but concentrated on the “classic” mummy-making period of the Pharaohs. Mummy technology peaked around 1,350-1,000 B.C.

At this time, the priests who worked in the houses of the dead were using plant oils as a base for more exotic balms. The widespread use of beeswax and coniferous resin suggests that the embalmers were aware of their antibacterial properties. Beeswax was an important component of the mummification process, which could last up to 70 days. In one female mummy from 332-30 B.C., beeswax made up 87 percent of the embalming materials.

“In this respect,” write Buckley and Evershed, “it is especially interesting to note that the Coptic (directly derived from the ancient Egyptian language) word for wax is in fact ‘mum.’ “

More than 4,000 years have passed since some of these mummies were entombed, but how far have we come? We don’t believe in the ba, the soul that the ancient Egyptians believed moves in and out of the tomb and that is lost if the body is destroyed. But we still have the choice to impress our peers with expensive funerals and coffins, and many of us believe that there is a soul and some sort of afterlife.

The tools we use might be different from those of the ancients, but our preoccupations are the same.