Archaeology museums can be the driest dust that blows. Too often exhibits and their captions speak to the profession and not to the public. That’s what makes the museum dedicated to ‘the find of the century’ – the iceman discovered at 3,210m close to an Alpine pinnacle and christened Ötzi – so special. Modern museology and science, along with cases of extraordinary objects, bring this serendipitous Copper Age discovery vividly to life. Which brings me at once to the arresting one-to-one model of the 45-year-old Ötzi himself. Standing alone in a white room with his bow, quiver, and mountaineering kit, he may be small but there is something disturbingly real about him as he half turns to gaze at you.
I came upon him unexpectedly. He was not alone. To be fair, my mind was mulling over the previous room, which explained the unexpected discovery, after years of study, that Ötzi had actually been murdered. Ötzi was staring at a Goth, a woman in a black blouse and skirt on large roller blades with net stockings, posing directly in front of him for a selfie. Was it for a performance art photograph, I wanted to ask? Was she simply connecting across the millennia? Lacking a selfie stick, she was unable to fit her roller blades into the picture. Eying me, she gruffly called for my help. Using her cellphone, I stepped back and photographed her from the blades to her Heidi-like black mop of curling hair. Behind her posed the iceman. Behind him was his shadow, conjuring up a celestial day in the high Dolomite passes. Satisfied, the Goth glided away to the elevator and then disappeared, leaving me to the iceman’s company.
Now, this incident suggests the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano dedicated to Ötzi is little more than Madame Tussaud’s. Far from it. It is a one-man exhibition with a difference. It skilfully charts the extraordinary discovery of the iceman, then explains how he was mummified, before showing and explaining item by item what he was wearing, as well as his kit. Every item is exhibited, including his mummified body. Forensic analysis, evolving over the 30 years since Ötzi’s discovery, forms part of a narrative to confront the puzzle posed by this man and his paraphernalia. Finally, a floor is dedicated to his health and his murder, which leads to the final, white room where Ötzi stands alone. On this floor, apart from the near-human Ötzi, perhaps the most memorable exhibit is the digital table that invites you to roam across his mummified body, accessing with your sliding hand the embedded X-rays of his corpse. As easy as operating a smart phone, this scientific trickery is a cultural heritage marvel: children were mesmerised by these Copper Age bodily revelations.
Around 1.30pm on Thursday 19 September 1991, two German hikers, Erika and Helmut Simon, were walking in the Ötztal Alps. They decided to take a short cut off the marked path. In a gully filled with meltwater they spied something brown. Pausing to look at it, they realised it was a human corpse. They assumed this to be an unfortunate mountaineer, photographed what they could, and, on reaching their refuge later that day, informed the proprietor, Markus Pirpamer. Knowing that the spot lay on the Austrian-Italian border, Pirpamer alerted the nearest police in both countries. He then visited the corpse and found a number of wooden items, which he handled but replaced. The following day, in poor weather Pirpamer returned with an Austrian gendarme. They tried to release the corpse with a pneumatic drill and failed. They did, however, find a ‘curious pickaxe’. Later that day, the Public Prosecutor initiated criminal proceedings against an unidentified suspect.
On 21 September, in yet more bad weather, Pirpamer returned to the gully accompanied by the celebrated mountaineers Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner. It was Messner, examining the objects associated with the corpse, who realised that this man had perished in prehistory. On September 23, the corpse was finally extracted from the ice by a forensic scientist and, in the company of an Austrian TV crew, taken by helicopter to Vent in the Austrian Ötz valley. A hearse then took the corpse to Innsbruck’s Institute for Forensic Medicine. There, on 24 September, Konrad Spindler, professor of archaeology at the university, pronounced that the dead man was ‘at least four thousand years old’. C-14 analysis subsequently showed that the iceman lived between 3350 and 3100 BC. This was a Copper Age fatality.
Ötzi was named by a journalist on 26 September after the adjoining Ötz valley in southern Austria. The name has stuck even though the iceman was in fact found 92.5m inside Italy (a border created after the First World War). More about him was discovered by careful excavations in October 1991 and July-August 1992. Today, the mummy measures 1.54m. In life he would have been about 1.60m tall. His shoe size was 38. He was average height for the period, with no excess fat, and weighed around 50kg (today the mummy weighs 13kg). He had brown eyes and, according to the Federal Criminal police office in Wiesbaden, wavy dark brown to black hair over 9cm long. (Traces of arsenic were found in his hair, suggesting he worked minerals, probably copper smelting.) Ötzi was about 45 years old when he died, a good age for the time. The extraordinary model made by the Dutch twins, Kennis and Kennis, makes Ötzi look a great deal older than an average 45-year-old today, because, as they say in the movies, it’s the miles travelled not the years that matter. In 2010, DNA analysis showed he belonged to the Y chromosome haplogroup G2a-L91, now very rare in Europe and found only in isolated regions like Corsica and Sardinia. The analysis also revealed that Ötzi had a generic predisposition to cardiovascular disease and was lactose intolerant. His body also showed clear signs of degeneration. His joints are worn, while his 12th pair of ribs was missing. Signs of injuries were also evident. He had a well-healed rib fracture as well as a fracture of his nasal bone. On his left foot, a cyst-like growth on the little toe may have been caused by frostbite.
As fascinating as all these very human details are, one feature of his body was quite unexpected. Ötzi’s bare body boasts 61 tattoos. These take the form of groups of lines or crosses. Four groups of lines are situated to the left of his spine; one to the right and three on the left calf. Three more occur on the right instep and on the outer ankle joint. A tattoo resembling a cross is located on the back of the right knee and beside the left Achilles tendon. Finally, a fresh reassessment as recently as 2015 brought to light new lines on the bottom of the thorax. These tattoos were made by fine incisions into which charcoal was rubbed, a technique still commonly used in parts of Africa and India today. But these are unlikely to have been for decorative purposes. The marks occur at precise points where his body was subjected to considerable strain and were causing him pain. As such, it was a kind of acupuncture.
In some ways, more remarkable than the iceman’s mummified body is his clothing. At the time of death, he was fully clothed and lay stomach down on a large flat stone. As a result, the garments that covered his chest and stomach were preserved. So little is known about Copper Age clothing that it is hard to assess how typical his attire was. This consisted of a cap, upper garments, leggings, a belt, a loincloth, a pair of shoes, and a matting cape. The headgear was found where his head had lain. It was a semi-spherical cap made of strips of brown bear fur stitched together. Two leather straps were used to tie it below the chin. Ötzi’s coat was made of goat and sheepskin. Individual strips were cross-stitched together. The fur was on the outside. It was worn with the front open, but a belt was probably used to close it. Two separate leggings made of goat hide were found. These were 65cm long and would have covered only the thigh and calf. The top of each was reinforced with a leather strip so that the leggings might be knotted onto a belt. At the bottom, deerskin laces were sewn on to be tied to the shoes.
Ötzi’s belt was a 4.8cm wide strip of calf’s leather about 2m long, intended to be wound twice around his waist. Attached to it was a leather pouch that contained a bone awl, a scraper, a drill, and a flint flake. The awl was probably used for sewing as well as tasks like tattooing. The pouch also contained a nebulous lump of tinder fungus with slight traces of iron pyrites. This was almost certainly used by Ötzi for starting fires. The loincloth was made of soft strips of sheepskin cross-stitched together. It was worn between the legs and fastened to the belt. The front draped over the belt to protect the pouch. The shoes were intricately cobbled together. Each consists of inner and outer parts. The inner shoe was made of lime-bast netting holding hay in place as an insulation. The outer parts were made of deerskin with bear skin on the sole and fur on top, not unlike elegant moccasins. Leather straps fastened the two parts together. Ötzi’s grass cape was initially missed by the first archaeologists, it being mistaken for alpine swamp grass. This appears to have been matting over his head rather than a conventional cape, fastened with the aid of string.
The iceman’s kit brings us back to an area of archaeology more familiar to prehistorians. He had a copper axe with a long wooden handle, a flint dagger with an ash wood handle in a sheath, an enigmatic retoucheur made of lime, an unfinished long bow, a quiver with 12 rough arrow shafts and two finished arrows, a backpack, a net, two birchbark containers (one of which was used for transporting embers of a fire), a stone disc with a tassel, and two pieces of the flesh of fungus polypore threaded onto hide strings, as well as a collection of 18 different types of wood. This arsenal of material on one man shows just how resourceful mobile individuals like Ötzi were.
A trapezoidal copper axe with a yew shaft was the first give-away that the iceman was prehistoric. The copper is 99.7% pure and probably from the Colline Metallifere in western Tuscany. It was cast in a bivalve mould without any further processing. The blade shows signs of repeated use. This tool has led to suggestions that Ötzi was a chief or shaman. Clearly, he had access to precious resources. The 13cm-long dagger is made from flint from the lower southern Dolomites. If it had not been found in an ash handle bound with leather sinews, it might have been interpreted as an arrowhead. The retoucheur is a 12cm-long tool made of a lime branch with the bark removed. Into it was hammered a fire-hardened stag’s antler. This is a novelty in prehistory; one suggestion is that it was for retouching flint tools. The longbow was made of yew and stood 1.82m high. Traces of carving show that it was unfinished. The finished article would have been polished. No sign of a bow string was found. The quiver was an elongated rectangular hide bag that tapers at the bottom. A strut, broken in Ötzi’s lifetime, held it in place. It contained 12 rough arrow shafts and two finished, between 84 and 87cm long. The finished arrows had flint arrowheads held in place with birch tar, then bound with thread.
Ötzi’s backpack had a 2m-long U-shaped hazel wood frame, which held two thin boards close to the base. Hide probably covered the frame to contain his belongings. In it was a net made of tree bast string for catching birds and rabbits. The two birchbark containers stood 15-18cm high; their bases were sewn onto the cylindrical bodies. Inside one was found traces of embers in freshly picked maple leaves, suggesting Ötzi used these to make fire. In this highly practical kit was a disc of dolomite marble to which strips of hide were attached. This is thought to have been used for tying game to his belt. Quite why he had birch fungus polypore has divided prehistorians. Was it a medical cure, a kind of antibiotic, effective in particular against intestinal parasites? Or was it yet another practical tool for working the extraordinary range of materials that Ötzi drew on? This long list of carefully assembled equipment bears witness to a lifetime of travelling, hunting, and engaging fully with different natural habitats. The details, as the exhibition elegantly shows, are as much the narrative of this enigmatic individual as the story that led to his demise and discovery.
As soon as Ötzi was found, rumours spread that he had been on the run and had met a violent death. But it took ten years to prove this. In 2001, re-examination by a radiologist at Bolzano hospital revealed an arrowhead in the mummy’s left shoulder. The arrow itself resembled those in Ötzi’s quiver. His nemesis possessed the same hunting kit. The arrow penetrated the interior of his body. The wound proved to be deadly. Ötzi broke off the arrow but, in great pain, probably bled to death within a short time. Re-examination also showed he had suffered a cerebral hematoma. Whether this was due to his fall or a blow to the head, of course, we’ll never know.
Ötzi was shot from behind, quite possibly from some distance away. A wound on his right hand shows he had been involved in some close combat shortly before his death. The reason for the attack will never be known. The puzzling detail is that the valuable copper axe was not taken. Did Ötzi possess something more valuable that attracted an assailant? The only likely answer is that he was shepherding a flock and with his demise this was taken. One archaeologist has proposed a somewhat more elaborate explanation. Was Ötzi a ritual human sacrifice in the high mountains, asked the prehistorian, Johan Reinhard? In support of this, it is evident that some kind of funeral took place, insofar as all Ötzi’s gear was apparently laid out around him in the gully. Curiously, too, much of this kit was unusable – an unfinished bow, unfinished arrows, and so on. Was this kit assembled to accompany the iceman into the afterworld? Ötzi’s stomach contained pollen from the blossom of a hop bush, suggesting he perished in the late spring or early summer. First, a protective covering of snow and then a glacier formed here, freeze-drying him forever.
On leaving the gallery devoted to Ötzi’s murder, a wall space is provided to solve this whodunnit. Visitors of all ages are invited to write their solutions to CSI Ötzi: Crime Scene Investigation in the Alps. The black wall is peppered with provided notepaper, each leaf of which in small letters admits ‘the case is unlikely to ever be solved completely’.
From the ice
This one-man show is a triumph. The story itself is extraordinary but it is one that, thanks to the continual advances in science, is updated and made ever more compelling. As a result, Ötzi lives on. In a world today in which the safeguarding and storing of ancient human remains is becoming increasingly controversial, this museum provides a peerless reason for such strategies. It shows unequivocally how much we have yet to learn about our early ancestors, and how much more with each passing year we can learn from evidence we have to hand, as scientists dream up new investigative ideas. Ötzi, of course, is an exception. The extraordinary detail of his lifeways merits the equally extraordinary museological investment in the curation of the mummy and the finds. Yet, watching families in the half-light of the museum’s lower galleries devoted to Ötzi and his kit, there is a fascination in details that challenge all our assumptions in an age of manufactured products. Ötzi’s engagement with nature, in particular, is simply a wonder to behold. Who would have guessed the intricacies of Copper Age shoes, for example, or how he belted up each day to roam the high alps?
Staring at Ötzi’s grizzled face with his fraying strands of greying hair, you instantly realise how much more than an archaeological prize this discovery has proved to be. My companion on her roller-blades recorded her iceman; the children milling around his X-rayed mummy found their man too; I found an archaeology I simply had not imagined.
Thanks to a small army of scientists, archaeologists, and museologists – besides all of those who were engaged in his fateful discovery – this is a story about collaboration. Together, this one-man show has captured Ötzi’s Copper Age spirit, his humanity and, despite being more than 5,000 years old, his presence.
All images: © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology – www.iceman.it
Further information The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology at Bolzano has published an excellent small book about Ötzi: Angelika Fleckinger, Ötzi, the Iceman: the full facts at a glance. Folio Vienna, Bolzano, 2018.