A large, flat-topped mound near the modern Turkish village of Yassihöyük was first identified as ancient Gordion by the German classicist Alfred Körte in 1893.1 Körte was led to the Phrygian capital by the first-century A.D. historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, who wrote a ten-volume biography of Alexander the Great (parts of books 3 to 10 have been preserved). According to Curtius Rufus, the young king traveled to Gordion, which lay “equally distant from the Pontic [Black] and Cilician [Mediterranean] Seas,” where he cut the fabled Gordian knot. In 1900 Körte returned to the site with his brother, Gustav, and in a single season sank three trenches in the mound, uncovering five burial tumuli.

Two generations later, the University of Pennsylvania Museum launched the Gordion Project under the direction of Rodney Young, who excavated the mound from 1950 to 1973. In 16 seasons of digging, Young’s team excavated Gordion’s extensive Iron Age citadel complex—revealing a destruction level dating to 700 B.C.E., lower-town fortifications, 31 burial tumuli and later occupation levels in the citadel that included a cobblestone street lined with Roman-period buildings.

In 1957 Young made perhaps his most spectacular find: Under a huge tumulus—165 feet high and 1,000 feet wide—lay the earliest known intact wooden structure in the world. This was probably the tomb of a wealthy Phrygian king, perhaps even the tomb of Midas himself. Among the burial goods in the 15- by 20-foot chamber were inlaid wood furniture, including nine tables, and hundreds of bronze vessels, some containing food and drink (see the last sidebar to this article). Along one wall rested a log coffin containing the skeletal remains of a short man in his early 60s, perhaps King Midas, who was laid to rest on bedding that was elaborately dyed in purple and brown.

A new cycle of excavations, intended to record a detailed stratigraphic and chronological sequence for the citadel mound and to document Gordion’s domestic architecture and material culture, resumed in 1988 under the direction of Mary M. Voigt of the College of William and Mary, in association with author G. Kenneth Sams of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—which provided a new understanding of the history of the site from the Late Bronze Age through the Roman period.

After the fall of the Hittite Empire in the 12th century B.C.E., there is a dramatic change in material culture at Gordion, including new forms of settlement and new kinds of architecture and ceramics. These changes probably mark the arrival of Phrygian-speaking European immigrants in central Anatolia.

Much of the recent excavation has focused on the Late Phrygian (c. 540–330 B.C.E.), Hellenistic and Roman periods. When Gordion was incorporated into the Achaemenid Empire around 540 B.C.E., it lost its political importance but it gained economic opportunities as a result of its location astride major transportation routes. From this period we find debris from the manufacture of antler and bone artifacts, alabaster vessels and material for copper smelting. The relative abundance of pottery imported from the Aegean and western Anatolia (various kinds of storage and serving vessels, mostly for wine and oil) testifies to the continuing wealth of the settlement as well as to its wide-ranging relations with territories to the west.

With Alexander the Great’s conquest of Gordion in the fourth century B.C.E., the size of the settlement was much reduced—to only the citadel mound. A century later, the city was conquered by another group of European immigrants, the Galatians. These Celtic settlers built monumental stone structures, including a tile-roofed building. When the Galatians fled before a Roman army in 189 B.C.E., they left their belongings behind—so that houses excavated at Gordion still contain pottery, tools and other items in the places where they were used or stored. Ceramic workshops were found that contained fragments of terracotta figurines, painted bowls and jars, and containers full of paints and pigments.

Nearly two centuries later the Romans resettled Gordion, constructing large formal buildings that bordered on a street with an efficient drainage system. This small outpost, however, was not the equal of the great Iron Age citadel of Midas. Although it remained prosperous for a time as a Roman city, Gordion gradually declined in importance, finally disappearing in the early fifth century C.E.