Two years ago molecular sleuthing revealed the basic components of King Midas's sumptuous funerary feast (see Discover, November 2000, page 70). Now it seems that the abundance of meat in that last meal explains the rampant rot in his tomb.
Timothy Filley, a biogeochemist at Purdue University, analyzed Midas's remains to measure the concentration of nitrogen-15, which collects more in meat than in plants. "The nitrogen-15 levels indicate that Midas was at the top of the food chain," Filley says. This finding confirms the earlier report that Midas's funerary meal contained barbecued meats and suggests meat was a staple of his rich diet. A nitrogen-rich corpse and leftovers explain why the tomb was in decay when it was opened in 1957. Although common wood-rot fungi were absent, soft-rot fungus—which thrives on nitrogen—had degraded some of the wooden furniture almost beyond recognition. "From the way the furniture was arranged, the way it collapsed, and the different levels of nitrogen-15, we could determine the order in which things had degraded," Filley says. Fittingly, this rotting touch started with the king himself before spreading to his coffin and outward into the tomb.