20 September 2014

Ötzi20: 20 Years of science, media and mysteries

 - Wednesday, 04 January 2012, 00:00

by Francesca Vella

When two hikers came across a human corpse in the Ötztal Alps 20 years ago, speculation raged over the age of the body, and the life and death of the man who became known as Ötzi – the name coined by an Austrian journalist. The oldest, most well-preserved, frozen Neolithic mummy soon became a world sensation. Francesca Vella recently visited the special exhibition ‘Ötzi20 – Life. Science. Fiction. Reality’ at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, which was set up to mark the 20th anniversary of the discovery and which has been extended by a year

The interactive exhibition captures the sense of curiosity generated by the so-called “wet mummy”, whose discovery provided a snapshot of Stone Age life in Europe.

People all over the world watched on in amazement two decades ago as the intact body of a man from the Copper Age, along with his clothing and equipment, was recovered from a glacier in the Ötztal Alps where it had been preserved for 5,300 years. Long after his death, Ötzi now holds humans in his spell with ever more insights into his life and death.

More than three million people have visited Ötzi in the museum so far, and numerous scientists have examined him. The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano is thus this year dedicating the special exhibition ‘Ötzi20 – Life. Science. Fiction. Reality” to Ötzi. The exhibition will run until 13 January, 2013.

The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology presented the new reconstruction of the iceman during the opening of the exhibition.

The special exhibition occupies the entire exhibition area of the museum building. Each of the four floors is dedicated to one of the themes: Life, science, fiction and reality. The exhibition details the discovery of the mummy, the circumstances of his life, the results of the research and the way the archaeological find was featured in the media, as well as stories that have emerged since the iceman was discovered.

With its interactive stations, as well as films, interviews and hands-on displays, the exhibition is an exciting, educational and entertaining experience for children and adults alike.

Sophisticated modern measurement techniques have confirmed that Ötzi lived between 3,350 and 3,100 BC. Stonehenge had not yet been built in England and the pyramids of Giza would not be constructed for a further 600 years.

It was on 19 September, 1991 when Erika and Helmut Simon from Nuremberg discovered the corpse at an altitude of 3,210 metres above sea level in the Ötztal Alps near the Italian-Austrian border in a narrow gulley about two to three metres deep. Initially, it was assumed that the site was in Austria, but when a survey of the border was carried out in October 1991, it turned out that the find was 92.56 metres from the border in South Tyrol, in Italy.

An archaeologist, Professor Konrad Spindler, who was consulted five days after the corpse was discovered, said that the body was at least 5,000 years old.

The body was preserved thanks to a chain of extraordinary coincidences. Ötzi died high up in the eternally cold glacier region, where he remained lying in a protective gully. The mummification process began. When winter set in, Ötzi was covered by a layer of snow and he remained frozen. Over the course of centuries the glacial ice continued to flow above him, but he remained protected, because the gully ran at right angles to the flow of the glacier.

Until the September 1991 find, archaeologists could only reconstruct the Neolithic period on the basis of relatively scanty remains such as skeletons, burial sites and burial objects. Ötzi, however, lay as he died and is perfectly preserved as a wet mummy complete with clothing and equipment. Wet mummies are very rare and, if they are well preserved, extremely valuable.

Ötzi’s skin, hair, eyes, tissues, internal organs, and even the content of his stomach, are all intact. Ötzi gives us insights into an age we thought had been lost forever.

For the first time in the history of medicine it was possible to apply the most modern examination methods to a 5,000-year-old mummy. CT scans provided three-dimensional images and made it possible to construct an accurate model of Ötzi’s skull. Deformations caused by the pressure of the ice were visible. For the endoscopic examinations a special titanium instrument was developed which took snapshots of the inside of Ötzi’s body. Samples were taken and sent to laboratories around the world.

For over 5,000 years, Ötzi lay encased in glacial ice, where he was protected from light in a chilled, humid state. These conditions must now be artificially maintained in order to preserve this unique find for science and research. A cooling system unique in the world was developed which also allows the mummy to be displayed to the public. To prevent the mummy from drying out, it is sprayed with water, causing a fine ice layer to form on the surface.

It was established that Ötzi died from an arrow wound. For a long time the arrowhead remained hidden. It was not discovered until 2001 when new X-rays were analysed. The arrow had been shot from behind and from a considerable distance. It penetrated his left shoulder blade and injured a major artery, causing massive bleeding. He died shortly afterwards. Ötzi also had an injury to his temple and brain trauma. It’s unclear whether the arrow caused him to fall to the ground or whether someone struck him down.

Ötzi was evidently fleeing. This is indicated, for example, by his unfinished pieces of equipment. Before he met his death, Ötzi tried to quickly fashion a new bow and several arrows. A deep cut in his right hand reveals that he had been in hand-to-hand combat shortly before his death. The reason for the shot in the back remains unknown. A tribal war? A personal conflict? A raid? None of Ötzi’s equipment, not even his copper-bladed axe, was stolen. Was the fight about a herd of sheep or goats?

Research on the corpse is ongoing. In a New Scientist report published last month, Andy Coghlan wrote: “It’s time to rethink Ötzi the iceman’s last hours. The theory that he was caught and killed after a lengthy and exhausting chase through the Alps clashes with new evidence that he sat down for a leisurely meal no more than an hour before his violent death.

“A previous analysis of Ötzi’s stomach concluded it was almost empty of food, leading to the idea that the iceman spent his final moments running on an empty stomach. But when Albert Zink of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano and colleagues took a closer look, they realised that the empty “stomach” was in fact a section of Ötzi’s colon. They found that the real stomach had been forced upwards, and now lies wedged under the iceman’s ribs.

“Zink’s team has now examined its contents, which include plenty of partially digested ibex meat, probably suggesting that Ötzi enjoyed a hearty meal shortly before his death (Journal of Archaeological Science).”

Sources: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, New Scientist

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