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Volume 40, Number 5September/October 1989

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The Mask of Midas

Written by Donald Scurr
Photographs courtesy of Manchester University Museum

Alight clicks on. The man's face is illuminated by a single bare bulb. His features are those of a patrician, lined by long years of high office in an era soaked with intrigue, treachery and brutality. But also etched into the stern face are wisdom flavored with cunning, compassion touched with cynicism.

A moment ago, when the room was dim, his features seemed heavy with menace; now, as shadows cast by small movements of the suspended lightbulb stir behind his head, he just looks gloomy: a weary, resigned old man who has seen it all. It is as if the sudden light in the dusty room has recalled him from some remote past to face reluctantly the alien brightness of a new age.

In fact, we are gazing at features that have not been looked upon for nearly 2,700 years, for the mournful face that returns our stare is that of King Midas, schemer, statesman, general - the man, says legend, with the Golden Touch.

But how is it that these long-forgotten features, so lifelike here on the sculptor's table, have been recreated in clay in the unlikely surroundings of a tiny studio, cramped with stacks of boxes, each the size of a human head, in the Medical School of Manchester University?

To discover the answer we must return to June, 1957, when light first shone on the mortal remains of King Midas I, ruler of the kingdom of Phrygia in the eighth century BC. It came from a flashlight in the hands of archeologist Ellen Kohler, a member of the University of Pennsylvania team that was excavating a burial mound, or tumulus, over 50 meters (164 feet) high, at Gordion in western Anatolia. The beam lit a wooden ceremonial couch in one corner of the mound's inner chamber. On the couch, surrounded by a treasure of bronze vessels, was the skeleton of a man 159 centimeters (5'2") tall and found later to have died at age 65.

The team, led by Dr. Rodney Young, had anticipated discovering the tomb of Midas's predecessor, King Gordius, who died between 725 and 720 BC. Young himself thought that Midas would probably not have been honored with such an extravagant burial as the tumulus contained, because he had committed suicide - possibly by drinking bull's blood - when his kingdom was overall by the barbarian Cimmerians from across the Caucasus Mountains.

Today, however, most experts, including Kohler, other members of Young's team and Dr. John Prag, keeper of archeology at the Manchester Museum, believe it was Midas, the man around whom several of the ancient world's most enduring legends have grown, who was buried in Gordion's Great Tumulus. The Cimmerian devastation of Phrygia did not end the life of the kingdom, says Prag. "It flourished for another 150 years, and stylistically, the finds from the tomb fit the date of Midas's death very happily." But it was to those famous legends - and to the city of Manchester - that several experts eventually turned to seek convincing evidence for their beliefs.

The Manchester Museum - part of Manchester University - houses one of the world's finest Egyptian collections, including 17 human and 34 animal mummies. They date from the earliest period - around 3,000 BC - to the coming of Islam in AD 631, when the practice of mummification ended. In 1973, the university brought together specialists in medical, scientific and archeological disciplines in the Egyptian Mummy Research Project to make an exhaustive examination of the Museum's mummies. As part of the project, Number 1770, the mummy of a young girl from Hawara in the Fayoum, Egypt's largest oasis, was unwrapped and, in the operating theater of the university's medical school, dissected.

Modern analytical techniques soon established that the Egyptian girl had suffered from poor health, probably for most of her fourteen years: The calcified remains of a parasitic guinea worm were discovered in the abdominal wall. She had lived primarily on an invalid's liquid diet, a fact deduced from the absence of wear on the surfaces of her teeth. Most poignantly, both of her legs had been amputated - whether by a human surgeon or a Nile crocodile could not be established - and replaced by rudimentary artificial limbs.

The autopsy had revealed much from the pathetic remains of this young girl, but what it could not show was what she had looked like when she was alive. Surely there could be no way of reconstructing her features after the dull brown bandages had been removed and the gilded face mask, with its inlaid artificial eyes, had been lifted away to reveal the small skull, crushed into 30 fragments. And yet today the face of Mummy 1770 does live again in the museum's Egyptology Gallery, the object of intense scrutiny by countless schoolchildren of an age similar to her own. Full-lipped, wide-eyed, she stares from her glass display case with all the artless charm of an adolescent girl.

The facial reconstruction of Number 1770 was the work of a remarkable artist, Richard Neave, illustrator in Manchester University's department of medicine and probably the world's leading expert on the reconstruction of skulls. During one celebrated project, bodies donated for scientific research were photographed before dissection. Without seeing the actual faces or photographs beforehand, he reconstructed the skulls, then the faces, and the resulting work was compared with the original pictures. In all cases, everyone agreed that the resemblances were uncanny.

Like most truly talented people, Neave makes little of his own skills. "Basically," he says, "it's all science right up to the stage when I have produced a bland face with features in place of the right size and proportion. Simple geometry determines the angle, line and length of the nose. We can also calculate the size and shape of the mouth; actually, there is only a limited number of mouth types and because we can tell, for example, how wide the mouth was to a millimeter or two, whether the person could form a good seal in the mouth with their tongue - and hence whether they had a protruding lower lip - we can be confident about the appearance of that person's mouth."

"The evidence from the facial bones of Number 1770 indicated that this was an early adolescent girl with a delicate nature, a slightly assymmetrical face and persistently open lips. Because the skull was broken into so many pieces, a plaster cast had to be made of each fragment and these fitted together to form a facsimile of the original. Missing areas had to be replaced and then a plaster cast made of the whole skull on which a reconstruction could be built."

Having arrived at a satisfactory reconstruction of the skull, Neave proceeded with the flesh, the features, and ultimately the character of the face. "A series of tables exists which list the average thickness of the soft tissues of the face," Neave explained, "and these were originally produced over a hundred years ago. Recently, a lot more work has been done on this, particularly in the US, and statistically more acceptable measurements of soft tissue are available or us to work with."

"First, we normally drill the plaster cast if the skull at 21 strategic points and insert small pegs - usually matchsticks - to represent the varying thicknesses of flesh, in accordance with the tables. Using soft modeling clay I then build up the lead, neck and face," Neave continued, carefully checking the depth measurements as I work.

"The tables ensure that I work consistently, but the faces I reconstruct are not cadavers..." His meaning was clear: Neave strives to make his subjects live.

"At this stage I start to move out of science and into.. .interpretation of the human being." Neave's cool, elliptical sentences reflected how much, even after 30 years' close acquaintance with his subject, its techniques still absorbed him. "This is when all the information provided by my colleagues - dentists, radiologists, archeologists, geneticists and so on - comes together and the process becomes...," he leaned forward, "art, if you like."

And so the face of a child, nameless except for a catalogue number, was reborn. But Neave's next major subject was less obscure.

Professor Manolis Andronicos of Greece's University of Thessaloniki believed that a skull in his possession, taken from the Royal Tomb of Virginia in Macedonia, was that of King Philip II. Impressed with the reconstruction of Number 1770, he contacted Manchester to see if his theory could be confirmed.

Surgeons, anatomists, and anthropologists pooled their findings to show that the skull did indeed fit Philip's historical profile. The king was known to have lost an eye during a violent city siege; the skull had, in life, lost an eye in an injury described by one expert as being like a modern construction-site accident in which a scaffold pole falls from a high building. A spear, flashing down from the battlements of a besieged city, might have exactly the same effect. Neave's reconstructed head, showing the injury, convinced Andronicos that the skull was indeed Philips.

Meanwhile, the crumbling skeleton unearthed from the Gordion Mound back in 1957 was still awaiting a conclusive examination to show beyond reasonable doubt that it was King Midas. In 1988, Dr. Veli Sevin, a Turkish paleontologist and graduate of Manchester University, now of Istanbul University, visited his old college and saw Philip's head. He was inspired to invite Prag and Neave to visit Ankara last fall to attempt a reconstruction of the Midas head. All three men believed that the Midas - legends provided important - evidence that could just settle the matter.

Prag, who feels that most classical legends have in their origins some basic truth, retold the fables.

"Ovid in his Metamorphoses tells us that Midas was known for his greed. The king captured Silenus, a satyr and companion to the god Dionysus.

"For his kind treatment of Silenus, Dionysus rewarded Midas with a wish. 'I would that all I touch might be turned to gold,' Midas wished, but when all that he ate and drank turned to gold, and eventually even his own daughter, he realized his error. Dionysus granted his release by having him bathe in the Pactolus River, thus changing the river's sands to gold."

Prag rationalized the tale by pointing out that, as ruler of Phrygia, Midas was indeed fabulously rich, and the phrase that "everything he touched turned to gold" might have been used of him as understandably in his day as it might be used today of a successful financial tycoon in the world's money markets.

Then too, the skeleton on the wooden couch at Gordion had lain amid a wealth of ornate bronzy vessels, more than 350 of them, which would have shone like gold as torchlight glimmered in the tomb. Golden too would have been the reflections from the polished juniper and cedar timbers that formed the burial chamber. During the ceremony in the subterranean vault, such a golden aura might have persuaded superstitious mourners that the chamber itself was turning to gold.

Finally, it is a geological fact that the Pactolus River, near Sardis in modern Turkey, does have deposits of alluvial gold in its stream bed.

The second legend surrounding Midas is that he had ass's ears. Prag recounted: "Apollo, god of music, asked Midas to judge a musical contest between himself and the satyr Marsyas, more familiarly known as Pan, the goat god. Midas judged against Apollo and, incensed, Apollo changed his ears to those of an ass. Midas concealed them under his turban and made his barber swear to tell no one, but the barber, unable to contain himself, whispered the secret into a hole in the ground. He filled in the hole, but when reeds sprang from the spot they broadcast the sibilant secret as the winds soughed past: 'Midas has ass's ears.'"

About these ears, Prag said, "'Long and hairy,' I think would be a fair description. Actually, there is a well known condition of the ear which might account for the - long'aspect. It is called Darwin's tubercle, which is a malformation of the ear cartilage, and is hereditary. There's also a condition that develops in maturity, inherited through the male line, called 'hairy ear,' or 'hairy pinnae,' in which men begin to grow hair on the sides and edges of the ears." Prag grinned and indicated his own right earlobe. "My father needed to shave his ears later in life and I seem to be developing the habit quite nicely."

But if we assume that Midas had both Darwin's tubercle and hairy pinnae to explain his "ass's ears," didn't the fact that these conditions are inherited imply that his father and royal predecessor, King Gordius, would also have been known for them?

"That's where the third legend helps us," Prag smiled, "because we are told that after King Gordius died without an heir, an agreement could not be reached on his successor." To break the deadlock an oracle suggested a drastic solution: When the city's gates were opened the next day, the first man through would be given the throne. In the morning, that first man was a farmer bringing his cart to market. When he was told he was to be crowned king, he went with the officials - but not before he had prudently secured his cart by tying up the yoke. The knot he tied came to be known as the Gordian knot - later to yield to the sword of Alexander the Great - and the man was Midas. "No problem, therefore," added Prag, "about Gordius not having the medical conditions that marked Midas: No one claims that Midas was Gordius's son."

Describing the Manchester group's visit to Ankara University to inspect the Midas skeleton, Neave said, "We felt it was vital, not merely to come away with a cast of the skull for further investigation here, but to leave something tangible behind, so I produced a preliminary working model on the spot - a sketch of the head in three-dimensional form - and left it with our Turkish friends.

"When we returned to Manchester," Neave continued, "we were able to study the skull-cast more thoroughly and produce a much more carefully worked version of the head. Nonetheless, this proved to be very similar to my first effort in Ankara. Gradually gaining more data from my colleagues, I produced a further cast for the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and another, later, one, with modifications from further research, for the United States."

All this teamwork by dentists, radiologists, anthropologists, anatomists and other specialists, allied to Neave's own skills and Prag's researches - an integrated professional relationship that Neave describes as "symbiotic" - how close has it led us to the true face of King Midas himself?

"Well," Neave replied, "the scientific analyses showed, amongst other things, that the head had been bound in childhood to elongate it: Long heads were considered fashionably attractive at the time. And although the upper part was lightly built, with wide cheekbones, the jaw was very strong. Then, after I had applied my own knowledge of anatomy - for example, certain types of nose fitting with certain types of skull - then I had to speculate, based on one's own natural experience of people and of life.

"In Midas's day there were no spectacles, so a man aged over 60 would probably have had to screw up his eyes to observe people or to read. He would have been a political survivor - we can all think of contemporary examples of his type - a wily character, playing off one powerful ambassador against another, no doubt careworn by affairs of state. All this would have taken its toll," said Neave. "I've tried to put all this into his face, but inevitably there are things we can't know. Was he bald or did he retain a good head of hair? Did he have a beard or moustache? Probably he was clean-shaven but we can't be sure. Were his eyebrows bushy, did his ears protrude, have I shown enough wrinkles, was he fat?"

As Neave spoke, it seemed that his sensitivity, imagination, scientific knowledge and artistry all combined to provide a pretty good guarantee that his vision of Midas's face is probably close enough to the original of nearly 3,000 years ago.

"Of course, this is a continuing process," said Prag. "Turkish anthropologists and geneticisis are carrying out research in central Turkey to establish if there is any evidence of the prevalence of Darwin's tubercle, either historically or at the present day. Given the possibility of further medical evidence, together with the historical research in Turkey, perhaps one day we will be even more sure of his appearance. The British archeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler once said that 'we archeologists don't dig up things, we dig up people.' With our team here at Manchester, plus the modern techniques at our disposal, we can look at skulls in a way that has never been done before."

One by one, that night, the lights in the department of illustration were switched off, leaving only the faintest gleam of sunset to leak a pool of golden light through the glass partition wall into the small inner studio. In the dimness the old man with the lugubrious features looked with a knowing eye at the trace of gold on the floor. As an outer door slammed shut, flicking deep shadow across his face, did he...wink?

Donald Scurr is a free-lance journalist based in London.

This article appeared on pages 36-40 of the September/October 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1989 images.