Ötzi ‘The Iceman’

21 May

A reoccurring topic at the Neolithic ‘Houses’ is Ötzi ‘the Iceman’. So it is time to write a bit about him. I have been privileged enough to travel and visit Ötzi at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Northern Italy.

(Official Website Here).

(Image above is from South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology Website)

Ötzi was a late Neolithic/ Early Bronze Age individual who was frozen in the ice quite by chance, to which an exceptional preservation occurred – proving us a tantalising glimpse to what life was like at the time in which he lived and died. Discovered in 1991 by a German couple on a hike in the Ötztal Alpes, South Tyrol, Italy – Ötzi was thought to have been a ‘mountaineering accident’, but turned out to be an exceptional world famous discovery. He was relatively short in height, being around 160cm/ 5.4 feet (Milisauskas. 2002. Pp. 244- 245), and was approximately 45 years old when he died (Price and Burton. 2011. P. 248).

Not only was Ötzis body preserved, but also were his clothing, weapons and tools; as well as the crime scene which resulted in his death… Ötzi was murdered. the Archaeological evidence recovered from his body merged with the exceptional preservation has enabled modern forensic scientists to theorise what exactly happened to this individual in his final hours.

“In July 2001, almost exactly ten years after the mummy came to light, our consultants, Dr. Egarter Vigl and Dr. Gostner, made an exciting discovery. Analyzing new X-rays, they noticed a foreign body lodged in the left shoulder. Subsequent detailed investigations no longer left any doubt: it was a flint arrowhead. In all probability Ötzi died as a result of this wound. Penetrating the body, the arrowhead created a 2-cm-wide hole in the left shoulder blade and ended up just a few centimetres from the lung. Vital organs were not hit, but the arrow severed a major blood vessel and damaged the neurovascular fascicles of the left arm, which must have caused heavy bleeding and possibly paralysis of the arm. The Iceman probably bled to death within a matter of minutes. In addition, a deep unhealed wound to the hand confirm that the Iceman was involved in hand-to-hand combat hours or days before his death. A recently discovered craniocerebral trauma with major bleeding in the back of the brain along with a skull fracture, indicate a fall or attack shortly before his death.” (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology Website).

What was preserved? One of the more unusual features of Ötzi are his tattoos. His body contains the evidence of more than 50 tattoos of various designs, including crosses, lines – all of which are located at common ‘wear and tear’ points of the human body (most notably wrists, ankles, knees and back). it has therefore been theorised that these tattoos were an early form of acupuncture (Lanser. 2015. P. 50). The image below shows the most famous of Ötzis tattoos.

(Images above are from an article by Archaeology Magazine, available Here).

(Images above are a small selection of Ötzis surviving artefacts from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology Website).

Due to Ötzis exception preservation, a wide array of artefacts were recovered from his discovery. Above are a few examples pictured which will be discussed further. The bow was a rare find, it was originally placed against a large boulder before it was covered by ice over time. Part of the bow was sticking out of the ice, and snapped off. When recovered – it was unclear whether the ‘sticks’ of wood were of any importance. Luckily however, it was pieced together to reveal an unfinished longbow of around 182 CM long (Fadala. 2011. P. 35). The quiver of arrows were another important discovery. Flint arrowheads are relatively common on archaeological sites of this period – however the organic nature of the arrow shafts, and bindings are extremely rare.The bow, quiver and arrows are highly significant as they allow us to see the size, materials and technologies which were used at the Late Neolithic/ Early Bronze Age period.

Also surviving among the belongings of Ötzi, were two containers made from the bark of a birch tree which had been stitched using other fibres (Yarish et al. 2009. P. 01). Being made from an organic material, these containers would rarely survive in an archaeological context. The use of Ötzis birch containers can also be assumed from what evidence survived with them – one of them is assumed would have carried the glowing embers from the previous nights fire, which could have been kept smouldering through being held within maple leaves (which were found within one of the containers).

“On his journey over the Alps the Iceman carried a birch-bark container with him. He used it to store hot embers for starting a fire. He wrapped the embers in freshly picked maple leaves, which served as insulation material. The leaves have retained their chlorophyll down to the present day” (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology Website).

Many of Ötzis personal items were constructed from animal leathers and grasses, the most notable of these are his shoes (as pictured above). These shoes were quite a complicated design, and were constructed from several different components. The inner ‘shoe’ was made from a netting of grass, which was used primarily to hold other grasses and hay in place for insulation. The outer ‘shoe’ was made from deerskin. Both of these ‘shoe sections’ were connected to an oval sole which was made from bear skin (Milisauskas. 2002. Pp. 244- 245; South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology Website). When combined, these shoes would have been well insulated and would have been tough enough to support and protect Ötzis feet in the cold snowy conditions of the Alps.

The copper axe hafted on a yew handle was another interesting artefact recovered from Ötzis. Chemical analysis of the copper in the axe shows that there must have been a sophisticated network of trade throughout Europe more than 6,000 years ago (Price and Burton. 2011. P. 251). The very presence of a copper axe in this so called ‘Copper Age’ in Europe (AKA Late Neolthic/ Early Bronze Age in literature), is suggestive that the mining of copper in prehistory was much more extensive than we find archaeologically/ or currently understand (Fowler et al. 2015. Pp. 701- 702). The axe may have been purely for decoration/ as a status symbol; however, this is unlike the rest of the tools and ‘kit’ that Ötzi was carrying – all of which was functional in the harsh conditions he was traveling in. The more likely interpretation is that the axe was a vital tool to fell trees and would have been crucial for survival in the conditions Ötzi was facing.

In conclusion, the very chance find and preservation conditions of Ötzi have allowed not only archaeologists, but also the public alike to get a glimpse of what life was like to our prehistoric ancestors several thousand years ago. We can visually empathise with an individual who has tattoos to help with the wear and tear of his body. We can see the benefits and reasoning behind the clothing he wore and the weapons/ tools he carried. All of these resources help us better understand the time in which Ötzi was part of and we can attempt to understand the way of life in which this individual lived and died.

Bibliography. (2003). ‘Ötzi, the Iceman’ in Archaeology. Accessed Online 17/06/2015.

Fadala, Sam. (2011). Traditional Archery. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg.

Fowler, Chris, Jan Harding and Daniela Hofmann (2015). The Oxford Handbook of Neolithic Europe. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Lanser, Amanda. (2015). Otzi the Iceman. Abdo Publishing. USA.

Milisauskas, Sarunas. (2002). European Prehistory: A Survey. Springer Science. New York.

Price, T. Douglas, and James H. Burton. (2011). An Introduction to Archaeological Chemistry. Springer. London.

South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology Website. Accessed Online 21/05/2015.

Yarish, Vladimir, Flo Hoppe and Jim Widess. (2009). Plaited Basketry with Birch Bark. Sterling Publishing Co. Inc. New York.

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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Uncategorized


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