Everything Midas touched turned to rot

Contrary to myth, objects that King Midas touched didn’t change into gold. In death, however, his body helped transform his tomb’s furnishings in another way, researchers report.

Microscopic decay riddles the wood near Midas’ coffin. R. Blanchette

Recently, scientists identified soft-rot fungus as the culprit in the decay of Midas’ 2,700-year-old Turkish tomb and its contents, including the king’s wooden coffin and the tables used for a feast during his burial (SN: 11/4/00, p. 296: https://www.sciencenews.org/20001104/bob1.asp ).

It’s unusual for this fungus to flourish in a tomb. Now, Timothy R. Filley of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and his colleagues have found the nutrient sources for the aggressive fungus and discovered that this fuel included the king himself.

Filley’s group examined chemical fingerprints of wood samples from throughout Midas’ tomb. Because the fungus added nitrogen to wood that it decomposed, the ratio of nitrogen-14 to nitrogen-15–forms of the element that differ in their number of neutrons–revealed where the fungus had picked up nitrogen.

From such signatures, the researchers found that in some parts of the tomb, fungi had fed earlier on funeral-feast remains. But the fungus attacking Midas’ coffin and nearby floorboards had fed on the king’s body. The large amount of nitrogen-15 detected indicated that Midas probably had included much meat in his diet, adds Filley.

The data also reveal details of the decay timeline. For example, certain collapsed tabletops had much lower nitrogen-15 concentrations than did the decayed floorboards they rested on. This indicates that the tables didn’t fall apart until Midas-fueled fungus had completely degraded the floor beneath them, says Filley. The tables’ legs must have resisted decay and protected their tops from the floorboard fungus, he says.

The researchers report their results in the Nov. 6 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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