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Iron Age Gordion - Tumuli at Gordion

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Tumuli at Gordion
Greek and Roman writers preserved a tradition that Gordion was the seat of the Phrygian kings, and its role as a capital during at least some of Phrygia’s history is borne out by the large number of tumuli—earthen mounds covering the burials of the society’s elite—that are the most visually striking feature of the site today. Nowhere else in Phrygia are there so many tumuli that reach such a large size. In all of Anatolia there is only one comparable group, in a city that was itself a capital: Sardis, the west Anatolian home of the Lydian kings.
There are about 100 tumuli in the Gordion area. They range in size from small, nearly imperceptible humps, to the largest example that still stands some 53 m high after 2700 years of erosion, and is visible from miles away in the valley of the Sakarya River. This tumulus has been designated Tumulus MM, and is more than twice as high as the next tallest, which stands 22 m high (Tumulus W). 39 of these tumuli have been investigated archaeologically: five by the Körte brothers in 1900, 31 by the Americans, and four by The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara.
The burials range in date from the Early Phrygian period (ninth century BCE) to Hellenistic times. Inhumation burials are the rule in the earliest tumuli, but cremation burials appear at the end of the seventh century BCE. The occupants of the tombs can be male or female, and range in age from a child of 4–5 years old (Tumulus P) to an older adult in his early 60s (Tumulus MM). All of these tumulus burials are many steps above the common cist grave provided for most of the population of ancient Gordion, and this holds true for the grave goods included in the burials as well.
The tumuli with wooden tomb chambers from the Early and Middle Phrygian periods have generally similar designs. First, a rectangular pit intended to contain the tomb chamber was dug 1–2 meters deep. The base of the pit was normally lined with stone or gravel, but occasionally it was nothing more than hard-packed earth. The tomb chamber itself was essentially a flat-topped box, made from large pine or juniper timbers, usually with a wooden floor (though the base of the pit could serve as well). The interior spaces range from about 2 m square to 6.15 x 5.10 m (Tumulus MM), all of which provided room for some form of wooden coffin as well as an array of grave goods.
The timbers were joined without fasteners, using various kinds of housed or lap joints (with the occasional mortise and tenon joint). The tomb chambers were held together by the joinery, by gravity (with squared timbers stacked on top of one another), and by the pressure of stone packing that filled the space between the tomb chamber and the walls of the pit. Before the roof was installed, the burial proper would take place: the coffin was lowered into the chamber; the body was placed inside; and the grave goods were arranged around the body in the coffin, on the floor, and (occasionally) on the walls and beams, suspended on iron spikes. The roof of the chamber would be a single or double layer of wooden beams, and then a mound of stone rubble would be piled on top. Above this would be built the mantle of the tumulus, frequently with a sealing clay layer directly above the stone pile, then normal earth to create the final shape and height of the tumulus.
Today, the only tomb chamber from this period still visible is the one in Tumulus MM, which is exceptional in every respect. It is the largest tumulus, and it covers the largest tomb chamber. Its roof is double pitched, like the roofs of the Phrygian megaron (the roof design on these is known from the Gordion “doodle stones” from Megaron 2, and from the rock-cut façades in the Phrygian highlands to the west of Gordion). The pit that would normally hold the tomb chamber was lined with roughly trimmed limestone blocks and completely filled with stone rubble.
On top of the rubble fill was a layer of juniper timbers, trimmed flat on top to receive the lap-jointed pine timbers that created the tomb chamber floor. The squared pine wall beams were positioned on top of the floor, and outside the wall was set an outer casing of rough juniper logs. The space between the interior wall and the juniper logs of the outer casing was filled with rubble, as was the space between the juniper logs and the upward extension of the limestone wall that lined the pit. All of this was built up in concert, along with at least enough of the tumulus fill to support the entire interior system (the limestone wall was not designed as a retaining wall). The three roof support systems were constructed from pairs of pine beams stacked one on top of the other, with two more pairs of timbers trimmed in place to create the angles for the gabled roof.
It was at this point in the construction of the tomb that the burial of the dead king took place. A banquet was held in his honor, and the coffin, body, and grave goods were lowered into the tomb chamber. While no gold was discovered in the tomb, the grave offerings were large in number and spectacular in quality. Among the items found in the tomb were three large bronze cauldrons; 166 bronze bowls, ladles, and pitchers; 172 bronze fibulae (clothing or safety pins); nine three-legged wooden tables; and two large inlaid wooden serving stands. Seventy objects were originally suspended on L-shaped iron spikes on three walls, but all fell to the floor as the spikes rusted through.
With the final arranging completed, the mourners climbed out of the tomb, and the chamber was covered and sealed by two rows of squared pine beams, capped by the ridge beam, which measures nearly 11.5 m long. A secondary roof of juniper logs was built across the ridge beam, and the whole wooden tomb chamber complex was finally covered by more rubble. Above this, clay and earth were piled and packed higher and higher, until the tumulus was completed (and higher than it now stands after 2700 years of erosion).
Excavated by Rodney Young in 1957, Tumulus MM is easily the most studied of all the tumuli at Gordion. Peter Kuniholm of Cornell University began his dendrochronological studies on timbers from the tomb chamber. The latest scientific date for the juniper logs surrounding the tomb chamber proper is around 740 BCE. Assuming that the juniper logs were cut and trimmed for use in this tomb, they provide the best absolute date for the construction of the tomb. And if 740 BCE is the date of the tomb, it is too early for Midas, who is historically attested as late as 709 BCE. Tumulus MM could, however, have been the tomb of Midas’ father Gordios. If so, it would have served as the new king’s first major building project, and his name has continued to be attached to the mound by virtue of its modern nickname: Tumulus MM, the Midas Mound.
Since the 1980’s, team members at Gordion have been monitoring the environment and structural stability of the tomb chamber. Electronic dataloggers record temperature and humidity levels throughout the year. Readings of calibrated “telltales” at the corners of the outer casing are recorded by the Gordion Museum staff each month throughout the year, and measurements are taken at fixed points in the interior of the tomb chamber. All these efforts and professional engineering studies led to the installation in 2002 of a new support system for the juniper logs of the outer casing. It is all part of our goal to study, document, protect, and preserve the tomb chamber in Tumulus MM, the oldest standing wooden building in the world.
Further reading
Kohler, E. L. 1995. The Gordion Excavations (1950-1973) Final Reports, Volume II. The Lesser Phrygian Tumuli, Part 1: The Inhumations, Philadelphia.
Sams, G. K. 2005. “Gordion: Exploration over a Century,” in The Archaeology of Midas and the Phrygians. Recent Work at Gordion. ed. L. Kealhofer, Philadelphia, pp. 10–21.
Voigt, M. M., and R. C. Henrickson. 2000. “Formation of the Phrygian State: The Early Iron Age at Gordion,” Anatolian Studies 50, pp. 37–54.
Voigt, M. M., and Young, T. C. Jr. 1999. "From Phrygian Capital to Achaemenid Entrepot: Middle and Late Phrygian Gordion," Iranica Antiqua 34, pp. 192–240.
Young, R. S. 1981. The Gordion Excavations (1950-1973) Final Reports, Volume I. Three Great Early Tumuli. Philadelphia.

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