The "Tyrolean Iceman": The Importance of the Find
The "Tyrolean Iceman": The Importance of the Find and the Exhibition in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology
The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano/Bozen, South Tyrol, Italy, was opened on the 28th of March, 1998. In its 1,200 square meters of exhibition rooms, it documents on three floors the chalcolithic mummy "Tyrolean Iceman" (nicknamed "Oetzi") and the artifacts found with him.
The most unique fact about the complex of archaeological finds which came to light in 1991 at the glacier's edge is the discovery of a fully-clothed, fully-equipped mummy, providing a glimpse of the clothes and technical abilities of the late Neolithic Age (3,300 to 3,100 B.C.). Prior to this, the only remnants we had of the apparel of those times were the relatively fragmentary remains found in the lake dwellings in the circum-alpine region; generally, these consisted of woven or knitted plant fibers. Animal-derived materials (furs, etc.) were absent there. Thus, the complex of "Ice Man" finds offer a snapshot of a man from Chalcolithic times who was underway in the Upper Alps. His clothing consists of a cap, a fur coat, a pair of trousers, a leather loin cloth, and a pair of lined shoes. His equipment included an unfinished bow stave, a quiver and arrow shafts, a copper hatchet, a dagger with a silex (flint) blade, a retoucheur, a birch bark container, a backpack, as well as various spare materials and bone tips. Many of the artefacts preserved in the ice are one of a kind in the world. In the absence of organic remains, it was not clear from previous finds how these objects were made and how they worked.
The Presentation of the Iceman in the Museum
In awareness of fact that this archaeological find was likely to trigger heated ethical discussions, great importance was attached to a very restrained form of presentation, when the Museum was established in 1998. The current exhibition format stems from the 2011 special exhibition on 20 years of the Iceman, which was followed by an update of the permanent exhibition in 2021/2022.
The area surrounding the mummy is deliberately stark: the white-painted walls evoke a wide-open and snow-covered landscape. The graphics and architecture do not in any way detract from the object. The discovery and recovery of the find are illustrated by video projections to complement the information panels. A discovery room at the end the floor gives visitors the chance to try a reconstruction of the coat worn by Ötzi.
By means of partitioning of the exhibition room, the museum visitor can decide for himself if he wants to view the mummy or not. The window through which one can look at the mummy has not been "shoved" into the middle point of the entire exhibition. Instead, it has been placed in a visually separated, tastefully designed room. The 40x40cm wall opening allows the museum visitor to take a look into the refrigeration chamber in which the mummy – lying on a precision scale – is conserved at a temperature of -6°C and nearly 100% relative air humidity – the same conditions found in a glacier.
Behind the metal wall visible in the exhibition room, there is the so-called "Iceman Box:" a complex installation consisting of two refrigeration chambers with independent systems, an examination room, and a decontamination chamber. Sterile conditions and air filtration are guaranteed in all of the chambers. A small laboratory is available for further scientific investigations. A computer-controlled station registers the measurement values (pressure, temperature, relative humidity, weight of the mummy) which are transmitted by the sensors and probes mounted on the mummy's body or in the refrigeration chamber. They can automatically sound an alarm if any changes occur. This alarm and security system enables the specialized technicians to react immediately in the event of an emergency. Coroner Prof. Dr. med. Oliver Peschel (University of Munich, Germany) and pathologist Dr. med. Martina Tauber (Bolzano Regional Hospital) supervise the preservation of the mummy.
In contrast to the other areas of the museum, the floor dedicated to the Iceman has dimmed lights. This is not done to create a particular atmosphere, but rather for conservatorial reasons, paying heed to the light-sensitive nature of the objects. The accompanying finds are kept in acclimatised showcases and are displayed under 50 Lux strong lamps.
The fascination exerted by the world's oldest ice mummy is undiminished even now, more than 30 years after its discovery. But according to the museum visitors, it isn't just the chance for a "face-to-face" meeting with an ancient ancestor from the Chalcolithic Period which stamps itself in their memory. More than anything else, it is the equipment – preserved for the first time – of a Chalcolithic man which they find so enthralling: Frozen together with the man, his clothes, tools, and personal effects have withstood the millennia. Carefully restored and reconstructed by the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz (Germany), his "thermal shoes," "backpack," and the dagger and sheath make it apparent how expediently equipped the Iceman was. It is amazing to note how little difference there is between the Neolithic implements and the standard equipment of a modern mountaineer. Only the materials have undergone a fundamental modernization. Archaeo-technicians from all over Europe have repeatedly created and tested replicas of the finds discovered along with the Iceman. They were astonished at how functional the bow and arrows were, the hatchet (which could also be used to fell trees), and the tinder polypore from Oetzi's belt, with which he could (together with pyrite nodules) start a fire regardless of wind and weather.
The initial findings showed that Ötzi – at 46 a relatively old man for his time – must have suffered from arthritis. In an attempt to treat it, he had tattoos applied at specific neuralgic points. He also suffered from intestinal whipworms.
In 2001, X-ray images and a CAT scan revealed the presence of an arrowhead in Ötzi’s left shoulder. Since the entry wound didn’t have time to heal while Ötzi was still alive and the arrowhead pierced a vital artery, scientists assume that Ötzi was fatally wounded by an arrow and bled to death within a short time. In addition, new insights were gained into an unhealed laceration on his right hand, indicating that he had engaged in hand-to-hand combat some hours or days before his death. In addition, evidence came to light that he may have suffered craniocerebral trauma before his death. These discoveries have shed light on Ötzi’s personal tragedy but at the same time raise more questions about the cause of his violent death.
In November 2010, twenty years after the mummy’s discovery, Ötzi was briefly thawed out under controlled conditions by a team of researchers in Bolzano, the aim being to obtain tissue samples for further scientific analysis. Some of these samples were passed on to independent institutes for analysis, while others were stored and will be distributed later to vetted institutions.
In 2010, red blood cells (erythrocytes) were identified in the supposedly bloodless body. They are indistinguishable from modern-day fresh red blood cells in size and shape. The identification of fibrin around the arrow wound, which breaks down rapidly after clotting, confirmed that Ötzi did not survive long after being wounded.
Ötzi’s last meal: ibex meat
A new analysis of X-rays of Ötzi identified his stomach, which, contrary to earlier assumptions, contained food remnants. His last meal, which he probably ate no more than an hour before his death, consisted of a mixture of fatty ibex and deer meat as well as grain.
What the DNA reveals
Several years ago it was believed to be impossible to decode the fragmented nuclear DNA of a 5,300-year-old mummy. It was therefore a worldwide sensation when in 2011 Ötzi’s nuclear genome was isolated by the Ancient DNA Laboratory at the EURAC Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano in cooperation with an international research team. Analysis provided detailed information on Ötzi’s appearance and bodily functions, new insights into his origins and ancestry and evidence of medical conditions and predispositions to disease. Genetic analysis revealed that Ötzi had brown eyes and that his blood type was 0 positive.
Lactose intolerance, borreliosis and Helicobacter pylori
A surprising find was that Ötzi was genetically predisposed to several diseases. In particular, he had a very high risk of cardiovascular disease, which would have made him susceptible to a heart attack or stroke if he hadn’t been prematurely killed by an arrow. His genes also show that he was lactose intolerant, meaning that he was unable to digest lactose in milk – a trait he probably shared with the majority of his contemporaries.
Ötzi’s genome also revealed traces of Borrelia, tick-borne bacteria that are the cause of infectious Lyme disease. This discovery is the oldest evidence ever of borreliosis and proves that ticks already posed a danger to man and beast 5000 years ago.
In 2016, researchers found evidence of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in Ötzi’s stomach. The bacterium is present in half of all people and can lead to stomach ulcers. It is the oldest evidence of the bacterium ever found. However, to the astonishment of the research team, it didn’t resemble the bacterial strain found in Europe but a strain found in Central and South Asia. The mixture of African and Asian bacterial strains that characterizes the European bacterium therefore probably developed after Ötzi’s lifetime and suggests that settlement of the European continent was more complex than was previously supposed.
Analysis of the genome revealed information about both his mother’s ancestors and the lineage of his father. Through his father’s line, Ötzi belonged to a subgroup of haplogroup G2a2b (G2a-L91), which has meanwhile become very rare on the European mainland (> 0.1%). Ötzi’s haplogroup is relatively common only on the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. This suggests that Ötzi and the populations in Sardinia and Corsica had common ancestors who migrated from the east to Europe during the Neolithic period. In the course of time, this group was displaced by, or mingled with, other population groups across large swathes of Europe. The descendants of the original population have only survived in significant numbers on the isolated Mediterranean islands.
Through his mother’s side, Ötzi belongs to haplogroup K1f, a subgroup of K1 that was only found in the central Alps and has since died out.
Many of these findings would have been unthinkable a decade ago, showing that scientific research into Ötzi is far from over. Technical advances will raise new questions and provide us with an even more detailed insight into the life of this man. Ötzi’s secrets have not all been revealed by any means, inviting museum visitors and researchers alike to contribute their ideas. Why was Ötzi travelling in the mountains? Why was he killed? Why wasn’t his copper axe taken? Was he alone? Who did he live with and how did he live? These questions show that in this case archaeology has been given a face in the truest sense and that it can touch people by uncovering the fate of an individual.