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.
This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 116. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.