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Sample Analysis: The Ice Man

The Ice Man

 

Consider the “ice man,” a 5,300-year-old mummy discovered in 1991 in the Tyrolean Alps on the border of today's Austria and Italy. The evidence is not just a body, but also a collection of material objects whose study illustrates the use of complex methods to understand the past. It is a history that can only be written from the material record because it predates written sources.

 

In 1991, two hikers discovered the remains of a man who was beginning to melt out of the ice at the edge of an Alpine glacier. At first the significance of the find was not clear—the assumption was that the body was relatively “new.” Therefore, the excavation of the remains and what was around them was somewhat haphazard. Some of the objects with the man were badly damaged or destroyed; the body itself was damaged.

 

The sensational nature of the discovery became apparent quickly though, when radioactive carbon dating techniques determined the body was some 5,300 years old. Here, then, was one of the oldest, almost completely preserved, bodies ever found—not just a skeleton, but a body with hair, skin, and internal organs. Of short stature, 5' 2", the man lay on a rock slab in a position suggesting (probably misleadingly) that he had stopped to rest, set down objects he was carrying, and never woke up. Nearly ten years later, X-rays revealed an arrowhead lodged near his spine, probably indicating a fatal wound.

 

He carried and wore a variety of objects that can be viewed on the website of the South Tyrol Museum where the iceman and his possessions are displayed. His basic clothing was sewn together from animal skins and furs; his cape made from bundles of alpine grass. The cape was in fragments and badly damaged during excavation, so the significance of the bundled grass was not initially clear. The man was well equipped—he had a fire kit, pieces of fungus that may have had medicinal properties, and several tools.

 

Also striking is the only fully preserved prehistoric copper-headed axe. This axe offers a good example of the importance of examining an object in several ways. Because of its shape, scholars initially identified it as bronze and thus from a significantly later era. Subsequent chemical analysis demonstrated that the axe was copper and was created by casting, a relatively sophisticated technique of metalworking.

 

In another experiment, a sample from his intestines was studied. He ate unleavened wheat bread and meat shortly before his death. The intestines also revealed traces of pollen. Microscopic analysis indicated that the iceman climbed into the mountains shortly before his death from a valley on the Italian side of the Alps where the tree producing that pollen grows. Furthermore, the pollen helped establish the time of year he died because the tree blooms for only a few months every spring. Analysis of grains and moss found clinging to his garments also helped to identify the specific area in which he lived.

 

Here then we have a case of material culture expanding all previous knowledge of daily life from Copper Age Europe some 5,000 years ago. Other Copper Age excavations have produced tools, bones, and evidence of habitation, but nothing this specific. The study of the iceman's remains has made possible a fairly convincing reconstruction of his actual appearance. Previous reconstructions were based on skeletal remains. We now know not only where he lived, but can say more about settled agriculture in the region. Organic material such as clothing does not survive from other Copper Age sites. Here we have the iceman's clothes (including his underwear!) made of animal skins that demonstrate how carefully the garments were stitched and even repaired. For the first time, we can see how alpine grasses were used as protection against the weather. His weapons and tools reveal techniques of woodcarving to shape a bow and simultaneous use of sharp-edged stone tools and sophisticated metal casting. Despite these answers, why he was murdered 5,300 years ago remains a mystery.

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