Main content

The maple leaves of the Iceman

The maple leaves of the Iceman

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.

Fire was vital

Fire was and is an essential key to survival for humankind. It is therefore not surprising that the Iceman carried a birch-bark container for holding embers. Fire not only kept prehistoric people warm. Cooked food is also much easier to digest than raw vegetables or raw meat. Fire also made possible pottery and metalworking. Fire was vital.
To make a fire, prehistoric people for thousands of years used a “fire-lighting kit” which contained a piece of flint, a piece of pyrite, and tinder. The Iceman, for example, carried a piece of dry tinder fungus for starting fires. Fine pyrite particles were found on the fungus, proving that Ötzi used pyrite to produce sparks, although no pieces of pyrite were found on his person. Steel (photo) replaced pyrite for producing sparks in the Middle Ages.
 

Plants as raw materials

A total of 18 different types of wood went into making the Iceman’s equipment. His containers were made from bark. String and a net which he possessed were from linden-tree bast. The sheath of the flint dagger is also woven from the same material. A mat that probably served as rain protection was fashioned from long grass straws. The Iceman’s shoes were stuffed with hay for warmth. Maple leaves served as insulating material for transporting embers. The range of plants used is enormous, and knowledge about them was vital for survival.
 

Rare stroke of luck – a find of organic materials

Archaeological finds of organic materials such as plants, fur, leather, or tissue are rare. Their survival depends on fortuitous environmental conditions. Ötzi and his equipment were embedded in glacier ice and were freeze-dried. The same is true of the leg coverings found at Rieserferner and generally of all finds in permafrost soil.
Favourable conditions also prevail in wet ground and in water. The relative absence of contact with oxygen under permanently wet conditions slows the decomposition of wood, grasses, and tissue. Such conditions are usually found only around settlements of pile-dwellings.
Archaeologists also find conserved organic materials in burial sites on peat bogs, thanks to the presence of humic and tannic acids, which tan materials such as hide, tissue, and hair, thus preserving them.
Metallic salts released during the corrosion of metals containing copper or iron can also help conserve textiles, but only if the corroding metal objects and the textiles are in contact with each other.
Fire also favours the conservation of organic residues, most notably charred grains and wooden objects.