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Oetzi the Iceman

He lies in an icebox now, with a little square window through which visitors like me can view him. He’s quite close to the window, sprawled face up at a angle, that arm rigidly streteched high across his chest. His image is well known, of course, but it’s quite a surprise to see the tabacco colored mottled flesh just a few centimeters away.

The second reaction is surprise. “Ötzi” was an old man for his time, about 45 years old it is thought, but his body looks as fine and as lithe as a dancer’s would be. The body isn’t substantial of course, but you get a clear impression he was a slight, delicate man. His hands in particular, are not simply fine, but small and graceful – almost feminine.

A few moments later and courtesy makes you leave the window, a last glance of the man twice as ancient as the dry old mummy who lies in a glass box in Cairo, the great Pharaoh Ramses.

Ötzi left no work so magnificent that we should despair, but what he died with stayed with him – the breeches, the shoes, the hat and the bow and the arrows. These are fascinating. One of the truly great things about discovering the small things of ancient life is to see how, as people, we really haven’t done anything other than stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. The skills, the imagination, the care, the clever use of materials and technology: we had all that ability millenia ago.

The leather clothes of goatskin, bearskin and wolfskin, all carefully stitched and cross-stitched with the pith of trees as thread. The same as used by rangers and American Indians just over a hundred years ago.

A great and sturdy longbow, with a stitched leather quiver of arrows fletched with feathers too; it would have been the pride of the hero Odysseus or a simple English yeoman. The mighty bow is of yew, cut exactly right to use the two wood types of that tree: it could have been made yesterday. The arrows are of dogwood and shaped straight with notches for the bowstring, the only notable difference from modern arrows being the flint arrowheads.

Not that metal wasn’t known – the pure copper adze he had, set into an L-shaped handle of wood to make a chipping ax, well that is so finely cast that the lines are still bright and sharp. It sings of long lost legends of ancient master-smiths even now.

There’s a stick-and-hide thing that for all the world looks like the old canvas mountaineering sack I saw in my Grandfather’s home. It was full of stores, repair kits, fire starting kits, fungal medicines that are natural antibiotics and the remnants of some food – including the earliest cultivated grain. But then maybe it wasn’t a rucksack, but snowshoes – or both. It’s like seeing a whole world come to life.

The rest of the museum in which Ötzi lies in Bolzano is given over to explaining the research that’s going on to discover more. No-one knows where he came from exactly, though it appears he and his people had lived in the region for many generations; possibly some of their descendants live here still. No-one yets knows who he was – farmer, hunter, shepherd, raider, shaman, warrior or chief – or any mix of the above. No-one knows how he died, though it does seem from something violent. No-one knows why he died, or even if he died, where he was found high up in the Öztal.

We do know what he ate, how good his health was and what he looked like. He ate too much of the wrong thing (fatty food and high carbs), his health was getting worse (congested lungs) and he was worn by the rough life he lived (arthritis and a gammy knee). Sounds like many of us, this writer included. He and I have the same blood too – O+ ….

Article © Carl Ottersen | Photographs © Oetzi Museum, Bolzano Italy

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