How public warmed to ice-age man

July 26, 2002

Tourists and scientists alike are fascinated by the 5,300-year-old preserved remains of an 'iceman' who may well have been killed. Paul Bompard reports

A5,300-year-old mummy is fast becoming the Che Guevara of Alpine Italy. In Bolzano, the town in South Tyrol, that Oetzi, the Iceman now calls home, the mummy's image adorns everything from mugs to key-rings, and a replica of an Oetzi-era knife, with flint blade and wooden handle, sells for €350 (£215). The cable car that links the head of the Val Senales valley below the glacier where the iceman was found in 1991 has even been dubbed the "Oetzi Express".

Every year, the mummy draws thousands of people to Bolzano, including eminent scientists from all over the world. Exhibits at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology include a life-size reconstruction of the fully dressed and kitted-out iceman standing on a pedestal.

It is perhaps the murder-mystery elements of Oetzi's story that have captured the imagination of so many people. Oetzi, who is almost 2,000 years older than Tutankamen and was perfectly preserved by the frozen climate, died alone on top of a mountain, almost certainly killed by another human.

Scientists, too, want to know about Oetzi's origins, background and the violent fate that finally overtook him. The person who deals with the many research proposals they put forward is Eduard Egarter Vigl. Until 1998, when the museum opened to house Oetzi, Egarter was chief pathologist at the hospital in Bolzano. When he was appointed head curator of Oetzi's mummified remains, Egarter found himself thrust suddenly into the centre of international research. As Oetzi's "minder", Egarter, backed by an Italo-Austrian-Swiss scientific board, has the final decision on any "loans" of samples of tissue or bone or any direct examination of the mummy.

"Oetzi has changed my life. Personally, he has been an amazing stroke of luck," Egarter reflects in his spacious office at Bolzano Hospital. "But he has also been a great responsibility and source of anxiety. Nothing like Oetzi has ever been found before. The Egyptian mummies and the mummies found recently in South America were all preserved by man. Oetzi is the first case of perfect preservation by nature. There is no past experience to go on, everything has to be tried for the first time, and there is always a risk of doing something irreparable."

Egarter receives research proposals from all over the world. "They come from researchers in the most diverse disciplines. And there are some that are really hare-brained," he says.

Scientists are using diverse techniques to shed light on Oetzi. Forensic pathologists at the universities of Glasgow and Verona, for instance, are working on the medical cause of his death, while genetic studies are under way at the University of London. Already, the museum holds more than 300 publications dealing with Oetzi.

Since Oetzi's discovery, several theories have emerged as to how and why he was killed. Soon after he was found, radiologists thought they saw two fractured ribs, leading to conjecture that he had fallen, injured himself and died of exposure. But in more recent X-rays, the fractures did not appear. What was revealed was an arrowhead in his left shoulder and a hole in the shoulder blade. This led to the theory that he had been shot, or, as someone suggested, that he had fallen backwards onto an arrow in his quiver. Egarter's latest examinations, however, have revealed marks of wounds on his right arm and hand, as if he had fought hand-to-hand. "This fits in perfectly with the violent-death theory," Egarter says. "Harm Paulsen, an experimental archaeologist in Schleswig-Holstein, did some ballistics tests. Using bow and arrows similar to those found with Oetzi, he established that, fired at close range, the arrow would have passed right through the body. This leads us to think that after a hand-to-hand fight, Oetzi was shot while running away, at some distance, that he managed to escape by climbing the mountain and later died through loss of blood or exposure."

Egarter is putting together a number of research teams to follow this and other lines of inquiry. One of these is the possibility of extracting the arrowhead from Oetzi's body and examining the type of stone and possible traces of the wooden shaft for more clues. Egarter says: "In Oetzi's quiver we found 14 arrows. One is missing its head and is of a different wood from the others, so Oetzi may have pulled it out of his shoulder himself."

The idea has had to be shelved, however, for fear of damaging the mummy. Egarter adds that specific teams are being formed for each avenue of research. He believes the use of endoscopes will be very useful, but this requires un-freezing the mummy for an hour or two and running the risk of decomposition. "We have already used a special endoscope through his penis, past the prostate and into the bladder. We found tissue and organs comparable to those of someone who died a few days ago."

Egarter is convinced that Oetzi was a man of rank. "His clothing is very finely made. He carried an axe with a bronze blade, which would have been extremely unusual in the late Stone Age. He was probably a tribal chief. The fact that such a precious instrument, or weapon, was found with the body seems to confirm that he managed to escape and died out of reach of his assailants, who would have made off with his equipment."

Although the murder-mystery angle arouses the most media interest, Egarter expects the most important scientific discoveries to come from genetic research. "The murder mystery is almost doomed to remain conjecture," he says. "But from genetic studies, we will have solid scientific facts as to who he was and where he came from."

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