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Ancient Inscription Unveils the King Who May Have Toppled Midas

A newly discovered stone hints that a lost civilization defeated the ancient Turkish kingdom of Phrygia around the eighth century B.C.

A half-submerged stone inscribed with Luwian hieroglyphs detailing the fall of Phrygia (James Osborne, University of Chicago)
smithsonianmag.com

According to legend, the bombastic King Midas—a greedy but well-meaning ruler who was granted a wish that everything (yes, everything) he touched be turned to gold—once ruled the vast kingdom of Phrygia.

Contrary to what the Greek gods might have you think, Midas’ metallic touch probably wasn’t real. But Phrygia, a sector of land in what’s now Turkey, definitely was—and researchers have now uncovered evidence of a conflict that may have toppled the realm around the eighth century B.C.

Documented on an inscribed stone fished out of a Turkish irrigation canal last year, the battle against Phrygia was apparently waged by an ancient and previously unknown Bronze and Iron Age civilization, reports Yasemin Saplakoglu for Live Science. Stretching across some 300 acres, the lost city was likely among the largest in the region.

“In a flash, we had profound new information on the Iron Age Middle East,” says James Osborne, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago, in a statement.

A farmer who stumbled upon the half-submerged stone while working at a canal in southern Turkey alerted Osborne and his colleagues to the find last summer. The researchers were in the midst of investigating the archaeological site of Türkmen-Karahöyük, a large settlement occupied between roughly 3500 and 100 B.C., according to Harry Cockburn of the Independent.

“My colleague Michele Massa and I rushed straight there, and we could see it still sticking out of the water, so we jumped right down into the canal—up to our waists wading around,” says Osborne in the statement.

The team quickly recognized the stone’s script as Luwian, a curious Indo-European language native to Turkey that came into use during the Bronze and Iron ages. Cryptically referred to as the “Sea People” in Egyptian writings, the Luwians—suspected to have sparked a series of regional conflicts some 3,200 years ago—were previously linked to the collapse of local “Bronze Age superpowers,” as Ben Panko wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2017.

Despite decades of study, only a few modern scholars can read Luwian, a hieroglyph-based dialect that’s read in alternating left-to-right and right-to-left sequences. But with the help of a local Turkish museum, the researchers were able to ready the slab for translation by two such experts who had previously worked alongside Osborne.

The translation wove the tale of a king called Hartapu who had once ruled over a large civilization that harbored Türkmen-Karahöyük—the team’s original subject of study—as its capital between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C. Setting his sights on the nearby kingdom of Phrygia (referred to by the alternate name of Muska in the inscription), Hartapu dispatched warriors to conquer his neighbors. Though the stone doesn’t appear to mention Midas by name, the timeline fits with his rule—which may have ended poorly: “The storm gods delivered the [opposing] kings to his majesty [Hartapu],” the inscription reads. (Though to be fair, the long-gone residents of Phrygia aren’t around to tell their side of the story.)

The stone’s account is difficult to confirm. But its mention of Hartapu echoes hieroglyphics adorning a nearby volcano that also refer to the ancient king, hinting that he may have truly reigned over the region—or that, like Midas, perhaps, parts of his story had simply achieved the fame of mythos.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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