'The Iceman is a burial': new remarks

Gian Luigi Carancini & Tommaso Mattioli

Articles in this discussion

Introduction and problem setting

The authors of this paper have already proposed elsewhere that the mummy found at the Tisenjoch is a burial site (Carancini 2006a; Carancini & Mattioli 2009). However; we express reservations about the extensive use of GIS through which Vanzetti et al. reach the same conclusion in a recent article published in Antiquity (2010). In fact, it is quite clear that the original position of the body and equipment had undergone significant shifts over time, caused by repeated thawing periods; unfortunately the official documentation lacks precise topographic references, in particular concerning the height of objects. Nevertheless some considerations, some of which have already been proposed by other authors (Terzan 1994; Nisi 2001; Dickson et al. 2003), support the view that the Iceman is a burial. These can be summarised as follows:

  1. The snow and glacial motion through the millennia must have fully tipped over the mummy from an original supine position with the left arm probably paralysed by injury and locked onto the abdomen to the prone position in which he was found. The displacement of the nose and upper lip to the right and upwards and the fact that the left external ear was folded in on itself (Fleckinger 2002: 51) would fit this scenario.
  2. The Iceman's complex and bulky equipment would have been too heavy for a person escaping from his opponents. The cape of woven grass (a multi-purpose mat) could be interpreted as a sudarium. The two birch bark containers, one laid very close the head of the mummy, and the arrangement of other objects 'all neatly displayed' close to the mummy also suggest burial. Further indications are the quiver found in the north-west, containing a dozen rough arrow shafts and two finished exemplars (prepared by two different individuals, one right-handed, one left-handed) and in the south-west, the unfinished yew longbow, axe and backpack (Fleckinger 2002: 51, 58 , 83, 86).
  3. The traces of human blood from different persons on his weapons seem to suggest a ritual practice rather than combat. The weapons are all precious goods, not usually abandoned by the opponents (Fleckinger 2002: 46).
  4. The pollen of hop-hornbeam and hazel from samples of the Iceman's ingested material 'enabled botanists to say that, twelve hours before his death, Ötzi was in this valley (Fleckinger 2002: 96; Oeggl et al. 2007);

The official reconstruction leaves many unresolved points. It seems difficult to envisage the proposed rapid succession of events in just twelve hours: the Iceman's escape carrying bulky equipment from the lower Val Senales (the pollen suggests an altitude of 1200m) to the considerable height of 3210 m; the fact that the Iceman, who had difficulty walking because of previous damage to articulations, would still have had time to ingest two meals during the chase (first ibex, then deer and cereals); the reported fatal injury from an arrow shot from behind and from below; the fight with multiple opponents (suggested by traces of blood from four different individuals on the objects accompanying the Iceman, even, inexplicably, on an arrowshaft preserved in the quiver); and finally the slow death rather than a more probable swifter death by hypothermia.

If, as we believe, the Iceman had died in Val Senales, it would be reasonable to assume the following events. In early spring the man was seriously wounded by an arrow but his injury was not fatal. He developed an infection that left him alive for several days(indeed the Iceman's immune system had been exposed to severe stress, as shown by the deep furrows on his fingernails, and the last period of stress was around 8 weeks before his death; see Capasso 1995). Before death, he had a last ritual meal of cereals and venison (Rollo et al. 2002) (these ingredients being connected to representations of deer in rock art and symbols of regeneration). His corpse was then dressed with his parade clothes before rigor mortis set in. The body was transferred into the small upland natural basin of the Tisenjoch (probably between late spring and summer), and finally a complex ceremony was celebrated, including the sprinkling of the celebrants' blood on some items, the funeral feast with ibex meat, the burial of the body in supine position with the Iceman's rich equipment arranged around him. The corpse was probably covered with a mound of stones or a stone cist. We believe that the Tisenjoch, a high altitude mountain pass, is an example of a sacred place similar to the statue-stelae, rock art, deposits of bronze objects and cemeteries (Mattioli 2007) which are well documented in Europe during the fourth–third millennium BC. We also draw attention to the engraved cup-marks on isolated boulders that seem to indicate a ritual path from Val Senales to the Tisenjoch (Cavulli in press).

Open questions

There are still many questions that need to be addressed, not least that of the mummification. The poor state of the adipocere proves that this did not occur when the body was frozen. If the Iceman is a burial, perhaps his body was submitted to fire immediately after death to obtain rapid dehydration, to delay the decomposition of soft tissues and to neutralize the action of parasites. This practice, would make a body-shape similar to the contemporary images of the statue-stelae in which soft tissues and skeletal elements are represented very precisely (e.g. the Kernosovka statue-stela with the muscles represented adjacent to the chest and shoulder blades; see also the tree-shaped engravings on the shoulder blades, a kind of tattoo on soft tissues which evokes skeletal elements; Carancini 2006a: 24, tav. 12).

Another problem is the discrepancy in the radiocarbon dating of the objects associated with the Iceman, some of which are more recent than the mummy. In particular, the yew handle of the axe gave two differing 14C dates, one coinciding with that of the mummy (the end of the fourth millennium), the other of 2990–2920 cal BC (Kutschera et al. 2000): this would tend to confirm, in our opinion, the typological dating of the axe to a later period (see also Aspes & Fasani 1992). Indeed the axe (Carancini 1993: fig. 9.1) has no comparison with specimens of the fourth millennium which exhibit an elliptical profile (in side-view) widest nearer the cutting edge and a thickened heel (Leuzinger 2007: 151, abb. 178.6). On the other hand it is comparable to north-Italian axes with slightly raised edges dating to between the end of the Eneolithic and the Early Bronze Age (2450–2350 cal BC); their main feature is an unmistakable symmetry of the elliptical profile (in side-view), with the widest point equidistant from the cutting edge and the heel, and the profile no longer steep but strongly tapered (Carancini 1993: fig. 9.2-3; Carancini 2006b; Carancini & Peroni 1999).


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* Author for correspondence

  • Gian Luigi Carancini*
    Formerly of Università degli Studi di Perugia. Personal address via Fossitelle 3, 03041 Alvito (Frosinone), Italy (Email: gianluigi.carancini@libero.it)
  • Tommaso Mattioli
    Dipartimento Uomo & Territorio, Università degli Studi di Perugia, via Armonica 3, 06123 Perugia, Italy (Email: tommaso@cline.it)