Erosion, Biodiversity, and Archaeology:
Preserving the Midas Tumulus at Gordion

by Naomi F. Miller

(originally published in "Arkeoloji ve Sanat," 1999)

Gordion, the capital of ancient Phrygia, was the home of King Midas (c. 700 B.C.). The site lies in the Sakarya valley about 90 km southwest of Ankara, and nearly 100 burial tumuli dating to the Phrygian period are scattered over the surrounding countryside. One of the them, the 'Midas Tumulus', stands out in the landscape. No textual evidence proves that the Midas Tumulus was Midas' burial place, or indeed that ancient and modern Gordion are one and the same, but at the base of the 53-m high earthen and stone mound there is a wooden structure in which was found the skeleton of a man accompanied with a variety of bronze and pottery vessels, food offerings, and wooden furniture (Young 1981). The chamber was found by drilling, and the excavators tunneled in the shortest distance (from the south side). Today visitors can walk the approximately 100 m to the center of the mound to view the tomb. The conservation of the Midas Tumulus, under the direction of G. Kenneth Sams, has mostly been concerned with its interior (see Blanchette 1984, Blanchette et al. 1991; Liebhart 1984). The artifacts, including the spectacularly conserved tomb furniture (Simpson et al. 1992), are in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.

The Midas Tumulus and the recently expanded museum across the street are in the village of Yassıhöyük. A small but steady stream of schoolchildren and Turkish and foreign tourists visit the archaeological precinct comprising the City Mound and tumuli. Yassihoyuk can become a major tourist destination, however, if we take a broad view of the project's archaeological, preservation, and educational purpose. As Turkey becomes more and more urbanized, the advantages of having a large natural and agricultural area just a short drive from Ankara will become increasingly apparent. This article deals with one small piece of that larger picture.

Using plants for archaeological preservation
Several years ago, Dr. İlhan Temizsoy, Director of the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, expressed concern about soil erosion on the outside of the Midas Tumulus. Erosion caused by wind and water constitutes the major threat to the mound surface, so we decided that the most effective way to reduce soil loss would be to get an uninterrupted cover of plants to grow on the mound. Plant cover would keep the strong Anatolian winds from blowing soil away, would reduce the force of water reaching the soil surface. Also, because the roots of plants take up water, the total volume of water reaching the bottom of the mound would be less. Discontinuous plant cover on the mound resulted from several factors. The slopes are very steep, especially toward the top, animals were allowed to graze on the mound, local young people would play on it, riding bicycles or even motorcycles, and tourists would climb it for the view.

In April 1996 the General Directorate of Monuments and Museums erected a fence for keeping animals and people off the mound (see Miller 1994). By the summer of 1997, grasses and other plants had begun to spread in the protected area. A serious problem remained: deep erosion channels. We decided to see what would happen if we lined a channel with mudbrick and put some seeds between the rows of brick. In 1998, a program for monitoring the vegetation was developed.

What kinds of plants are best for the purpose?
No one type of plant is best. The slopes experience a variety of wind, weather, and moisture conditions. Having a wide variety of plants ensures something will always grow well, in a dry year or a wet one, a cold year or a hot one. The native steppe vegetation of Central Anatolia provides a particularly appropriate set of plants. It has evolved in this environment, and, once established, native plants do not require watering or expensive care. The native vegetation includes many perennial plants which stay green well into the summer or year round. Therefore, even when the spring wildflowers are gone, there is some green on the tumulus.

From an archaeological perspective, we have no idea what, if any, plants grew on the tumulus in antiquity. Analysis of archaeobotanical remains from recent excavations under the direction of Mary M. Voigt suggests that between the early Iron Age and the Islamic era there was a gradual loss of tree cover in the vicinity of the site, as well as some decline in pasture quality (Miller 1999). This process is reversible; indeed, now that sheep and goats no longer graze there, the lower slopes of the Tumulus need no further attention.

Mudbrick for erosion control
The surface of the erosion channels and the steepest of the upper slopes is unstable. The force of water flowing in the channels can move even fairly large stones down the slopes. We thought that unbaked mudbrick might melt slowly and stick to the bottom of the channels as the winter rains progressed. In the autumn of 1997, we therefore set mudbricks in two of the erosion channels. In one channel, bricks were laid in rows 5 cm apart. Some wild seed that we sowed between the rows sprouted. In addition, various wild plants that seeded themselves are growing in the channel among the grasses. In the second channel we had mudbrick rows spaced every 30 cm instead of every 5 cm, and only a few seeds were planted. In this channel, soil from above filled some of the spaces between the mudbrick rows, but even with that minimal number of bricks, many plants grow, both perennial and annual.

Natural vegetation on the tumulus
The winter of 1997/1998 in Yassıhöyük was the wettest in memory, so plant cover was particularly rich in the spring of 1998. In a survey of six vegetation transects over 125 types were recognized. The plants are distributed according to their own growth requirements. For example, Thymus sp. (thyme=kekik) does very well on the north side, whereas Artemisia (wormwood=yavşan) is more abundant on the south sector. The dry spring of 1999 confirmed that the most effective plant cover is one with many different kinds of plants--this past year, many annuals fared poorly, but the drought-adapted perennial grasses grew particularly well.

Future plans
For now we are letting plants spread on the lower slopes with no further assistance. We continue to set mudbrick in the erosion channels and have distributed a mixture of wild seeds between the brick rows. Finally, although previous plant propagating efforts have failed, we will try again to grow some wild plants; if we can establish seedlings in the erosion channels, fewer bricks might be needed. Also, if the upper slopes remain partly bare, it will be useful to have an easily renewable source of appropriate wild seed and seedlings.

We hope to post a sign near the Midas Tumulus, explaining why the fence was erected. In addition, we have explained the project to the local museum staff, the gendarmes, and anyone else who will listen.

Finally, to ensure the long-term survival of plants on the Midas Tumulus surface we will continue monitoring the vegetation. For example, to avoid fire, we may need to remove some of the dry plant material in the fall, after seeds have set but before the rains begin that could catch fire. This material would not go to waste if it were fed to the herds.

Applications of this work and research to other problems in Turkey
One of the most exciting aspects of the preservation work on the outside of the Midas Tumulus is that it has significance even beyond the successful stabilization of one of the major archaeological monuments of Turkey. As in the rest of the world, a concern for environmental preservation is rapidly developing. For example, there is now a movement to restore native steppe vegetation of the United States (see Packard and Mutel 1997). At Gordion, we have the opportunity to show how archaeologists can provide some solutions to a variety of problems.


Blanchette, Robert
1994 Deterioration Processes in the Midas Mound Tomb Structure, Furniture and Coffin. In Anadolu Medeniyetler Müzesi 1993 Yıllığı, Sayı VIII, pp. 185-186. Ankara.

Blanchette, Robert, K. Cease, A. Abad, R. Koestler, E. Simpson, and G.K. Sams
1991 An Evaluation of Different Forms of Deterioration Found in Archaeological Wood. International Biodeterioration 28: 3-22.

Liebhart, Richard F.
1984 The Gordion Wood Confernece, July 2-7, 1993: Tumulus MM. In Anadolu Medeniyetler Muzesi 1993 Yilligi, Sayi VIII, pp. 188-190. Ankara.

Miller, Naomi F.
1994 Some Botanical Considerations for the Conservation and Preservation of Tumulus MM at Gordion. In Anadolu Medeniyetler Müzesi 1993 Yıllığı, Sayı, pp. 181-183. Ankara.
1999 Interpreting Ancient Environment and Patterns of Land Use: Seeds, Charcoal and Archaeological Context. TUBA-AR 2: 15-29.

Packard, Stephen, and Cornelia F. Mutel (eds.)
1997 The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook for Prairies, Savannas, and Woodlands. Island Press, Washington D.C.

Simpson, Elizabeth J., Krysia Spirydowicz, and Valerie Dorge
1992 Gordion Ahşap Eserler/Wooden Furniture. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara.

Young, Rodney S.
1981 Three Great Early Tumuli, Gordion Excavation Reports I. University Museum, Philadelphia.