Ötzi – meeting with a remarkable man

As glaciers thin and retreat, they reveal unexpected finds. On opening Ernest Zebrowski’s engagingly written Global Climate Change, I was happy to see that he shared my fascination with one of these – Ötzi, the Bronze Age hunter who was found in melting ice in the Italian Alps in 1991. Zebrowski uses this anecdote to illustrate how most of the world’s glaciers are being affected by global climate change – Ötzi was found high above the terminus of the glacier in the Ötzal Alps, thus showing that it was thinning, as well as retreating. I was so fascinated by Ötzi when I visited his final resting place in a museum in northern Italy several years ago, that I wrote the following note, which I now share with you, about this remarkable man.

In early December 2009, I met a man who really interested me – in Bolzano of all places. His name is Ötzi, aka ‘the Ice Age man’, and the world’s oldest ‘wet’ mummy. Now reposing in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Ötzi lived around 3 300 BC, and was found in 1991 on a glacier in northern Italy. Will we start seeing more of these wet mummies, with all the melting glaciers?

In the museum, you line up and troop past a small glass window set into a silver metal wall to see the actual mummy. It reminded me a bit of queuing to see Lenin’s embalmed body in Red Square in the early 1990s, except there were no menacing guards that engendered a feeling somewhere between rebellion and trepidation. But back to Ötzi – he is thin and somewhat desiccated, his fingers long, his dried out skin like a walnut stain. You would not say from his vacant stare that he had blue eyes – quite fetching with his long black hair. He is stretched out on a simple platform in the posture captured by the natural burial process, one arm thrown high up across his thin torso. His feet are poignantly crossed at the ankles, Jesus on the cross.

A little boy in front of me could not tear himself away and had to be prised down from the window by his civic-minded parents. I felt similarly transfixed. It’s just a body now – a very old and stringy one, murdered five and a half thousand years ago by an arrow wound to the shoulder. But I was intensely drawn to it. The aura of this man from the past seems to enter your awareness, and translates into a sense of sanctity that hangs lightly in the room.

Elsewhere you can see his clothes made of fur and leather strips, the remains of his chamois loincloth, his 12 arrows, none of which was in working order at the time of his death. Other cases hold his axe, a very long and unfinished staff for his bow, some large round plant objects – a fungus? – that may have been used medicinally, perhaps to staunch the flow of blood from a wound. Two fleas were found in his clothes, some parasites in his stomach, but even though he was 45 – very long-lived for that time – he had no tooth decay. He did have several healed rib fractures though, and quite a few tattoos – sets of parallel lines coloured into the skin over joints and stress points that may have been some form of acupuncture.

Neither tomb nor sideshow, it all combines into an intriguing message from a far-off era. Paradoxically, this provincial museum is elevated to the otherworldly by the flesh that still clings to the mummy’s bones.

RIP, Ötzi.

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