Otzi the Iceman: Murder Mystery!

Here's the PBS NOVA episode of the Iceman Murder Mystery we started in class. A few things to look for:

How did Iceman die?
What was prehistoric life like?
Why was the axe so special?

One day about 5,300 years ago a man left a small village in the Italian Alps. He might have been selling flint to other Neolithic settlements on the northern side of the mountains, in what is Austria today. However, his journey took a tragic turn when he got caught in a nasty snow drift and died. In 1991 a couple of hikers came across the body sticking out of a melting glacier and called for help. A group of archaeologists took the body back to the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and "Otzi" became an instant celebrity.

After some intensive studies and examination of the Iceman and his belongings, archaeologists have learned a great deal about the Chalcolithic period of European history. Just try busting that word out at a party: Chalcolithic! It's just a smart word to describe the period of time when people were using both stone and copper tools. That's why it is also known as the Copper Age.

The most interesting thing about the Iceman is that he had wonderfully preserved examples of Copper Age tools and equipment with him like a bow and quiver full of arrows, a copper-headed axe, boots and a waterproof cape made of grass, and several kinds of food. In fact, by examining his stomach and intestines, scientists were able to find out that his last couple of meals consisted of meat from a red deer, some fruit, nuts, and grain grown locally in the region of Italy today called Sudtirol.

From his bones and hair, the scientists studying Iceman also learned much about his life. First, he seemed to be about 45 years old and used to climbing and living in the mountainous environment of the Alps. His joints showed the wear and tear of someone living in a pretty high and rugged place. He even had a spot of frostbite on his pinky toe. Iceman's hair showed a large amount of both copper particles and arsenic, a poisonous substance. In making copper tools, Iceman would have ground up a green rock called Malachite, then heated it to 1,100 degrees Celsius to smelt out the copper inside of it. Arsenic comes from the smoke of a copper-smelting operation, and Iceman seems to have been around quite a lot.

Interestingly, the Iceman also had 57 tattoos on various parts of his body. Besides being a decoration, these tattoos were used by prehistoric people to heal sickness and relieve pain.

Further study has shown signs of a more violent death for the Iceman than just dying in a snow drift. There have been findings of stab wounds from an arrow on Otzi's shoulder, a cut on his thumb, and even other people's blood on a couple of his weapons. Lately, there has been evidence that he also suffered a nasty whack on the head. He may have been fighting for his life when he died.

If you're interested in learning more about the Iceman, check some photo scans here.

Or, if you want to take a trip to Italy and see the Iceman up close and in person--check out the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

Click here to watch "Mummies Alive: Otzi" from the Smithsonian Channel!

Or check out a full length movie about the Iceman's life and times here:

Here are your questions to think about:

1.       What the heck was he doing in the Alps?
2.       How did he die? Was it a violent death?
3.       What was his daily life like?
4.       What did he eat?
5.       What were his tools made of?
6.       What were some dangers he faced?
7.       Why do scientists have different theories about how he died?

Iceman’s Remains

Missing his hair, fingernails and toenails, and an outer layer of skin, the Iceman is otherwise perfectly preserved (mummified). The one surviving fingernail recovered from his remains suggests that he suffered three episodes of significant disease during the last six months of life. His last meal included venison and bread. He was about 46 years old, five feet two (1.6 meters), 110 pounds (50 kilograms), and infested with whipworm. A sharpened piece of stone, probably flint, had made a half-inch gash in the Iceman's left subclavian artery—a gash in this artery can be deadly. Through C-14 dating they determined that Iceman died 5,300 years ago. They also know he had 57 tattoos at acupuncture points on his back, right knee, calves, and ankles.

Iceman’s Copper Axe

The handle was made of a very strong wood.  The blade was made of copper that had been melted and poured into a mold.  There was “wheat sheen” on the blade.  They originally thought the axe was from 4,000 years ago (the Copper Age) but it’s actually 5,300 years old.

Iceman’s Quiver

The quiver was made from deer fur.  The quiver’s strap and supporting strut were broken.  The bow that he carried was not finished.  The quiver contained 12 arrows, only 2 of them finished.  The finished arrows had flint arrowheads, wooden shafts, and feathers of a large brownish bird.  The feathers were attached by birch tar and long strings of sheep’s wool.  

Iceman’s Belt and Pouch
The Iceman’s belt was made from a 4- to 5 cm-wide strip of calf’s leather. A dagger was found on the belt with a handle of ash wood and a blade of flint, the Iceman's dagger measures five inches (13 centimeters) from top to bottom.
In the pouch were several items, including 2 fungus balls on straps, 3 different sized pieces of flint, and a pencil-like splinter made from goat or sheep bone.  There were also a couple of sloe berries in the pouch which grow from a bush that is found below the mountains, and are ready to eat after the first frost. 

Iceman’s Clothing
Iceman’s coat was made of the hide of a domestic goat. The hemispherical bearskin cap was found near Iceman’s head.  Like nearly all the clothing items, it was made of several hide strips stitched together. The cap, which was worn with the fur side out, was extremely well preserved. The shoes consist of an inner and outer part.  The inner shoe is composed of grass netting. Its purpose was to hold hay in place, which served as insulation material. The outer part is made of deerskin. Both parts – the grass netting and the leather upper – are fastened to an oval-shaped sole made of bearskin by means of leather straps.