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BLOG: The Golden Age of King Midas featured at Philly’s Penn Museum

By Bil Bowden

The Midas touch, or the gift of profiting from whatever one undertakes, is named for a legendary king of Phrygia (pronounced ‘freeze-yah’). Midas was granted the power to transmute whatever he touched into gold.

Conservator Molly Gleeson works carefully in the Artifact Lab to repair damage to a cat mummy. X ray images showed there was nothing inside.


What was behind the legendary story of King Midas and his golden touch? That is the question to be answered—not with chests full of gold, but with a spectacular array of 150 objects, including more than 120 specially-loaned ancient artifacts from four museums in the Republic of Turkey, keys to telling the true story of a very real and powerful ruler of the Phrygian kingdom. The Golden Age of King Midas is an exclusive, world premiere exhibition developed by the Penn Museum, 3260 South Street in Philadelphia, in partnership with the Republic of Turkey.  Admission to the special exhibition The Golden Age of King Midas (includes general Museum admission) is $20 adults; $18 senior citizens (65 and above); $15 for children and full-time students with ID; $5 for active military.  From

Pam Kosty, the Penn Museum public relations director, says the most common question asked here is simple. Is that real?

In 1988, experts reconstructed a plaster head of Gordios, King Midas’ father, from skeletal remains.

Just about everything – except reproductions of the Rosetta Stone and the Narmar Palette (31st century BCE, containing some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found)– is genuine, bona fide ancient.

While the Penn Museum in Philadelphia is loaded with its usual brain-boggling history lessons and beautiful artifacts, The Golden Age of King Midas is a brilliant special exhibit that opened in February and runs through November. It spells out the myth of the Midas Touch, boasts some amazing pottery, kettles, and shows how Penn Museum’s excavation of a Midas burial mound progressed from its beginning in the 1950s until now.

First, the myth.  Very little gold has been found at this burial mound in what is now central Turkey. What appears to be gold is goethite, an inorganic pigment that appears on some of the items, making them shine like gold. Or maybe it was the high zinc content of the bronze object that gave them a golden sheen. One story has Midas dipping his toe into the Pactolus River and making it run with gold. There have been a few gold deposits found here, adding to the legend.

In the Egyptian Sphinx wing, lighting around the Sphinx of Ramesses II makes it even more mystical.

The burial mound (built 740 BCE) is 174 feet tall and more than 1,000 in diameter, making it higher than the Statue of Liberty or Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Hidden inside the mound is a tomb, made of wood and stone.  It is said to be the oldest wooden building in the world.

In the Egyptian Sphinx wing, lighting around the Sphinx of Ramesses II makes it even more mystical.

Ah, but with all this, one would think that King Midas was buried here, but instead it’s probably his father, Gordios.  One story has said that Midas committed suicide during an enemy attack, but it’s legend. His body has still not been found.

An easy way to see the Penn Museum is to take Amtrak from Lancaster to Philly’s 30th Street Station and walk about 15 minutes through Drexel and Penn’s neighborhood that’s booming with new construction. Amtrak will cost  $32 round trip, cheaper for seniors.  Parking at the Lancaster station is $5. For serious and intense Penn Museum browsers, the museum offers a special hotel package that includes a room at The Inn at Penn or the Sheraton Philadelphia, free parking, breakfast and exhibit tickets for two.  Both are within walking distance of the museum.

But don’t stop exploring at the King Midas exhibit. Included in the special exhibit admission is a general admission ticket which allows visits to Iraq‘s Ancient Past, Africa, Canaan and Israel , China, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Mexico and Central America and Japan. In the Artifact Lab, visitors can stand within a foot or two of conservators actively repairing Egyptian mummies from about 600 BCE.  Some of those mummies include cats, crocodiles and ibis.

A 55-pound natural quartz crystal ball anchors the vaulted ceiling of the Chinese rotunda.

From the website – In addition to house pets buried alongside their owners, a large market existed for mummified animals­­—from birds to cats to crocodiles—intended as sacred offerings to Egypt’s many gods. So large, in fact, that an entire industry arose, which researchers believe produced more than 70 million animal mummies between 800 B.C. and 400 A.D. But a new study analyzing hundreds of these mummies has revealed that many of them contained only partial remains—while others contained no animal remains at all.

In the Egypt gallery stands a 30,000 pound Sphinx of Ramesses II from about 1293-1185 BCE. Beautiful and massive columns surround the sphinx from what the museum says is the best preserved royal palace ever excavated in Egypt.

Because the museum is in the center of University City, there are plenty of nearby places to dine. Within the museum is the Pepper Mill Café, which features Turkish-inspired food until March 20. A favorite among the locals is The White Dog Café, at 3420 Sansom Street, is just a seven minute walk away, close to your route back to Amtrak’s 30th Street Station.  Even the abbreviated mid-afternoon menu, has plenty of selection. Try some of the pickles there too, made by York’s own Epic Pickles.

This large caldron was probably built by King Midas for his father Gideos for the funeral feast. The demon figures were designed to protect him.