Testimony from the Iceman

The 5,000-plus-year-old Neolithic man discovered a decade ago is telling scientists how he lived and died

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The city of Bolzano, in northern Italy, has many things of which it can boast. It has a scenic location, wedged into a narrow valley between the gray, craggy escarpments of the Dolomites. It has an old central district, closed to automobiles, with streets dotted by small squares and fountains and lined with shops and cafés. The balconies, balustrades and cobblestones of this neighborhood can, in the evening light, induce a visitor to imagine that Romeo and Mercutio might at any moment come swaggering around a corner.


But the most remarkable sight in Bolzano is on the second floor of the old Banca d’Italia building, a short walk from the city’s outdoor vegetable market. I first saw it one evening in the company of Dr. Eduard Egarter Vigl, the chief of pathology at the city’s hospital.


Dr. Egarter asked me to put on hospital scrubs. He opened a heavy, insulated door and walked into the antechamber of a multiroom new vault built in the center of the building. It was brightly lit, and the temperature within was a degree or two below freezing. Egarter then opened a door to one of the two inner rooms in which the temperature is kept at a constant 20.3 degrees Fahrenheit and the relative humidity hovers between 95 and 98 percent. Inside one of the inner rooms a tray held a body, faceup. Egarter pushed a gurney up to the tray, slid the tray onto it, then rolled the gurney out into the refrigerated antechamber.


The body looks like a skeleton wrapped tightly in hairless skin—skin the brown of a roasted turkey. It gleams with a glaze of ice that is left undefrosted to protect it. It is 1.60 meters tall—about 5 feet 3 inches—and weighs 13.78 kilograms, or a carefully monitored 30.32 pounds. Black lines on its back and ankles appear to be tattoos. Its mouth is frozen in an expression that displays a few worn, chipped teeth. This body, which is roughly 5,300 years old and best known as the Iceman, is perhaps the most spectacular archaeological discovery of the late 20th century.


Egarter is its caretaker. He is a stocky, genial, balding man of 53, with a salt-and-pepper mustache, which, if it were waxed and curled, would give him a slight resemblance to David Suchet’s TV version of Agatha Christie’s detective, Hercule Poirot. That would be appropriate, because Egarter has become, in addition to the body’s conservator, a sleuth.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus