World's Oldest Dirty Dishes?

And you thought you were bad about doing the dishes.

When scientists at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology excavated the legendary tomb of King Midas in 1957, they were overcome by the smell of fresh-cut timbers — and rotting meat. The structure was built so well that it had perfectly preserved all the organic materials buried with the ancient king, including wooden furniture, cloth and organic dyes.

The tomb also contained five pounds of unidentified glop clinging to the bottoms of the various pots, jars and utensils accompanying the Phrygian monarch. The scientific instruments available in the 1950s were able to identify the gunk as organic, but could determine no more details. The materials' identity remained a mystery, and everything was sealed up in archival storage bags and stored away in the museum's bowels.

Forty years later, a museum curator asked archeological chemist Patrick McGovern to analyze these encrustations. With the aid of a infra-red spectrometer and a high-performance liquid chromatograph, he solved the riddle: the materials were the 2700- year-old leftovers from King Midas' funeral feast.

McGovern explained that it was Phrygian custom to hold a big meal at the wake, then toss everything — food, dishes, utensils, dining tables, cups — into the burial pit afterward. "It could be a case of ‘Just leave the dirty dishes, don't bother washing up,' " McGovern said. "But I think it goes beyond that. This was a way of identifying with the deceased king, and providing sustenance in the afterlife."

From the evidence, the mourners had quite a party, complete with barbecued lamb, goat, and lentil stew mixed with olive oil and flavored with honey and herbs. They also consumed large quantities of mead, and a gallon of wine per person.

Museum staff plan to put this scientific detective work to good use: on September 23, they will hold a dinner that will precisely duplicate the king's funerary feast.

We wonder if they plan to clean the dirty dishes afterward. Or be historically accurate — and leave them.

Photonics Spectra

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