Testimony from the Iceman

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

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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.

More than a decade after the Iceman’s discovery, Egarter is still trying to unravel the mysteries of the body on the tray. Along with its clothing and tools, the body was originally perceived as a kind of snapshot of the past, a specimen snatched from the Neolithic era to be analyzed and understood by the science of the present. Developing that snapshot has not proved as simple as was first assumed.

The body on the tray has a nickname, Otzi (it rhymes with “tootsie”), after an area of the Alps called the Otztal. In September 1991, a pair of hikers saw Otzi’s head and shoulders protruding from the melting ice in a pass known as the Tisenjoch, some 35 miles northwest of Bolzano. Otzi became a sensation. He made the cover of Time. He was the subject of several books and countless articles. In retrospect, many of the books and articles were partially mistaken.

Otzi began to befuddle people almost as soon as he was found. He was first thought to be just another Alpine fatality. Not realizing the age of their discovery, the rescue workers who came to the scene treated the body less than gently as they tried to pull it from the ice. A jackhammer tore chunks of flesh from Otzi’s left hip and damaged his thigh. The unfinished bow that he carried was broken into two pieces, and the frame of his backpack was ripped apart.

Only when an archaeologist from the University of Innsbruck, Dr. Konrad Spindler, saw the copper ax found with Otzi and estimated it to be 4,000 years old—a relic of the Neolithic age—did anyone begin to comprehend what an astonishing discovery had been made on the Tisenjoch. The Neolithic era was the transitional age when stone tools began to give way to metal and when agriculture was supplanting hunting and gathering. Until Otzi, archaeologists had been required to reconstruct Neolithic civilization from skeletal remains, flint tools and arrowheads, bits of pottery and the beginnings of metallurgy. The glacier’s damp, freezing temperature had preserved not only Otzi himself but also a trove of organic artifacts—clothing, wooden handles for tools and weapons, feathered arrows—never before seen by modern eyes. Some of the artifacts, however, were inadvertently damaged or destroyed as the body was pried from the ice.

“A lot was lost,” says Dr. Markus Egg, an archaeologist at the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz, Germany, who supervised the restoration of Otzi’s belongings. “For example, we don’t know how the backpack was worn—over the head or over the shoulder. And the quiver has no strap to indicate how it was carried.” Nevertheless, the study of the artifacts that did survive the extraction changed our understanding of the Neolithic world. The radiocarbon dating of Otzi’s ax blade forced a revision in the generally accepted date for the advent of copper smelting in the Alpine region. The feathers on two of his arrows showed that Neolithic man understood the ballistic principles that make an arrow rotate and fly more accurately. The embers that he carried, wrapped in maple leaves in a birch-bark container, suggested how Neolithic people transported fire from place to place.


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