King Midas may have had an ivory touch, too

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Pity poor King Midas. He became the ancient Greeks' favorite whipping boy when they wagged a finger at someone displaying insatiable greed.

From at least 717 to 709 BC, Midas ruled the powerful Phrygian kingdom in what is now central Turkey. And if Keith DeVries is correct, the king may have had at least as fine an eye for ivory as he reputedly had for bullion.

An ivory statue of a lion tamer, long thought to be a Greek artifact, actually took form at the hands of Phrygian artisans, says the soft-spoken associate curator in the Mediterranean section of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Based on its features and on the location where it was uncovered, he adds, the object may have come from a throne belonging to Midas.

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"While no single bit of evidence is conclusive in itself, the pool of evidence is compelling," says Dr. DeVries.

If true - and he agrees that the evidence for a royal pedigree is circumstantial - the artifact would be the first material evidence linked to the king. A tomb unearthed several years ago and identified as Midas's, later proved to belong to someone else, he says.

The most confident assertion he says he can make is that the nine-inch statue is Phrygian. Excavations at the Phrygian capital of Gordion since the 1950s and at Elmali, in southeastern Turkey, in 1987, have yielded a wealth of objects that have provided the smoking gun for the lion tamer's Phrygian origin, DeVries says - a decorative motif unique to inner Asia Minor and found in artifacts dated to the late 8th and early 7th centuries BC

The statue also sports "a big mortise cutting on the back," he says, large enough to attach the figure to a throne arm's support post.

Archaeologists unearthed the statue in 1939 from an ancient trash pit near the site of Corinth's treasury. In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus described the wealth amassed there and commented on the large number of objects that came from outside Greece. In passing, he noted that the earliest non-Greek donation came from Midas, whose gift, a throne, was "well worth seeing."

The lion tamer was found in a layer of the trash pit that dates to a period shortly after Herodotus died.

"It all adds up to a strong case that this statuette was attached to the king's throne," DeVries holds.

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