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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Phrygia, Gordion, and King Midas in the Late Eighth Century B.C.

Phrygia is the Greek name of an ancient state in western-central Anatolia (modern Turkey), extending from the Eskişehir area east to (perhaps) Boğazköy and Alishar Hüyük within the Halys River bend. The Assyrians, a powerful state in northern Mesopotamia to the south, called the state Mushki; what its own people called it is unknown. We know from their inscriptions that the Phrygians spoke an Indo-European language. Judging from historical records supported by ceramic evidence, settlers migrating from the Balkans in Europe first settled here a hundred or more years following the destruction of the Hittite empire (ca. 1200 B.C.).

Most of what is known about Phrygian archaeology and its language derives from excavations at the capital city Gordion, located about 60 miles southwest of the modern Turkish capital of Ankara (also a Phrygian site). Gustav and Alfred Körte first excavated Gordion in 1900. The excavators did not reach Phrygian levels, but they did reveal burials dated to the late eighth century B.C. with Phrygian ceramic, metal, and wooden artifacts. From 1950 to 1973, Rodney S. Young of the University of Pennsylvania led excavations at Gordion. Archaeological work at the site resumed in 1988 and continues to the present.

Many artifacts, sumptuous architecture, massively built fortification walls, and the contents of thirty-six tumulus burials from Gordion have now been excavated. This evidence demonstrates that Phrygia was both rich and powerful, and in active contact with neighboring states, including Greece. It flourished from early in the eighth century B.C. to around 700 B.C., when Gordion was violently destroyed by a massive fire. Ancient historians claim the Cimmerians, a nomadic people from north of the Caucasus Mountains, caused the destruction.

The most famous of the Phrygian kings is a man called Midas by the Greeks and Mita by the Assyrians. He ruled in the last decades of the eighth century B.C. One of the large royal buildings uncovered at Gordion was probably his palace. Today Midas is known primarily from Greek historical records, but the name also appears in two rock inscriptions, one east, one west of Gordion, and “Mita of Mushki” is mentioned in Assyrian texts dating to 717, 709, and the 670s B.C. Greek historical, legendary, and mythical stories about Midas—preserved in both texts and art—relate that he had the ears of an ass and, as a gift from the gods, everything he touched turned to gold. One legend claims that a man named Midas or his father Gordios began the royal Phrygian dynasty, thus fulfilling an oracle; both names continued to alternate as royal names.

Aside from architecture and artifact remains in the Gordion destruction level, important material was recovered from tumulus burials at Gordion, Ankara, and Elmali. Among the most important are those from Gordion, especially the largest and richest Phrygian burial (over 50 meters in height, 300 meters in diameter), called “Midas Mound” (MM). It was probably built by Midas for his predecessor and contains a large quantity of Phrygian objects along with imported goods probably from northern Syria. Among the former are masses of bronze and brass vessels and fibulae (safety pins) of various forms, and exquisite inlaid wooden furniture; of the imported goods are large bronze cauldrons with handles in the form of winged human busts, and animal-headed pouring vessels. Other characteristic Phrygian artifacts include bronze belts, wood and bronze animal figurines, and decorated pottery painted with geometric motifs or with friezes of animals.

Phrygia and the Greek world were closely connected, as demonstrated by the Phrygian borrowing of the Greek alphabet (possibly during Midas’ reign), Greek knowledge of Phrygian music, and the fact that Midas is said to have married an eastern Greek princess—a typical expression of a royal alliance. For centuries the Greeks also remembered that Midas had sent his sumptuous throne (probably made of inlaid wood) as an offering to the sanctuary at Delphi, most probably seeking an oracle. Ancient historians inform us that Midas killed himself in despair after the Cimmerians destroyed his city and kingdom. Nonetheless, Phrygia continued to exist and prosper for decades after the destruction. The state was eventually conquered by Lydians from the west, and then incorporated in turn into the empires of Persia, Alexander the Great, and Rome.