The death and ritual deposition of the 'Iceman': a hypothetical scenario

Renato Fasolo

Articles in this discussion


The 'Iceman', a problematic figure in Alpine prehistory, was alive at a time of extraordinary climatic, environmental, social and economic change, on the cusp between the Atlantic and Sub-Boreal periods, and at a time of transformation from a Late Neolithic society to an early Copper Age one. At that time, the high pastures of the Alpine valley of the Oetztal where he was found — already frequented during the Mesolithic — still had a cool and dry climate with little rain, very similar to today's (Bonani et al. 1992; Prinoth-Fornwagner & Niklaus 1995; De Marinis & Brillante 1998; Fleckinger & Steiner 1999). Pollen analysis in situ reveals a grass cover created by transhumant flocks, mainly of sheep and goat (De Marinis 1994; Bortenschlager 1999).

The hollow under a rocky spur where the Iceman was recovered was free of ice at the time of his fall, as indicated by the fact that some of the artefacts that accompanied him were found in direct contact with the soil; a few goat droppings and bird feathers were also found on this soil (Bagolini et al. 1995). Data from pollen and diatoms, on the Iceman's presumed last meal, establish that the Iceman was lower down in the valley a few hours before his death, in an environment rich in flowering forest species, probably in late spring or early summer, as indicated by a strong presence of Ostrya carpinifoglia (Oeggl 1999).

The thesis proposed by Prof Bondioli's team (Vanzetti et al. 2010) envisages a community living in a damp and cold climate, subject to abundant snowfall which would not have suited transhumance; the body of the Iceman would have been kept refrigerated in the valley in April and moved to its upland location in September, a fact that does not take into account the presence of very fine particles of sand in his tattoos (Van Der Velden et al. 1995).

According to the 'disaster' theory, on the other hand, he would have been attacked in early summer, while on the high pastures. Mortally wounded by an arrow, he would have bled while fleeing until he reached the hollow where he was found. There his body remained free from the attacks of scavengers during the entire summer before being covered by the autumn snows, a fact that Angelika Fleckinger finds hard to explain (Fleckinger & Steiner 1999).

It is difficult to imagine that a man, already quite old and suffering from numerous ailments including debilitating osteopathic conditions (Capasso 1999), was able to scramble up to high altitudes, equipped with inefficient weaponry. In fact not arrowshaft was recovered, there were no traces of blood on his clothes or body and the position of the objects accompanying the Iceman do not conform to a 'disaster' scenario. X-ray images show two holes on the scapula: one smaller and circular, the other larger, above the first (Figure 1), with semi-circular ridged edges, as though created by prolonged perforation, unlike what may be expected from by an arrowshot. Although the image of the two holes is clearly visible in all the published photographs, there seems to be nothing in the literature on the presence of the smaller hole; the peculiarities of the larger hole also seem to have escaped comment. The wound on the left shoulder shows a straight upper edge and an elongated lower edge, seemingly the result of a piercing action (Figure 2) along a curved trajectory thrusting upwards. An arrow shot from a long distance would have followed the opposite course, piercing from the top downwards. It seems therefore that the shot came from close range.

Figure 1
Figure 1. X-ray image showing the two holes (reproduced with permission).
Click to enlarge.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Points of entry (reproduced with permission).
Click to enlarge.

The broad and squat arrowhead has little capacity to pierce, but is well able to cut (Dal Ri 2006). The arrowhead can be seen on the X-ray image (Figure 3) in a transversal position which would not have affected the sub-clavicular artery (Gostner & Egarter Vigl 2003). The lesions encountered on the body, such as the unhealed broken ribs, a hole on the nape of the neck and cuts on the right hand precede by some hours the time of death, and the damage to the sole of the shoes at the heels (Malhotra 2003) could be compatible with an accidental fall, perhaps the result of a sudden illness; this is plausible for a death that has up to now been attributed to an act of aggression.

Figure 3
Figure 3. X-ray image showing the position of the arrow near the sub-clavicular artery (reproduced with permission).
Click to enlarge.

The Iceman may have died a non-violent death in his own village: a 'grand old man', whether expert metalworker, skilled shepherd and hunter, head of a clan or medicine man, he would have been given a post-mortem ceremony worthy of his position (Castellana 1995; De Marinis & Brillante 1998; Gleirscher & Oberrauch 2002; Gleirscher 2003), according to Neolithic funerary ideology. The body could have been subjected to an intervention that caused bleeding to death, essential for preservation, most probably by piercing the flesh and bone to reach the artery. The left wrist, marked by a cord, and the diatoms on the surface of the body could suggest that the body was immersed in flowing water in a controlled manner to hasten the loss of blood. Once all blood was evacuated, an arrowhead was symbolically or ritually inserted into the left shoulder. Having dressed and provided him with artefacts, wrapped him in grasses and fur held by cords and laid him on a (stretcher) (not a basket or rucksack) (Barth 2003), members of the Iceman's community accompanied him on the transhumance journey to lay him to rest at high altitude, perhaps in a cult place, suggested by the Remedello-type knife (Bagolini et al. 1982; Nothdurfer & Nisi 2001; Gleirscher & Oberrauch 2002; Oeggl 2003). Looked after by shepherds during their sojourns on the high pastures, the Iceman underwent the natural processes of mummification before being covered by the autumn snows. Precipitaions, strong winds, freezing and thawing moved him together with some of his equipment into the hollow to finally rest against the granite block. The growth of basal ice would have compressed him and stretched out his left arm, the accumulation of ice sealing and stabilising the whole until discovery.

In sum it would appear that ballistic evidence, the condition of the wounds and archaeological indicators speak against violence as the cause of the Iceman's death.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Prof Eduard Egarter Vigl for providing important infomation and for kindly making photographs available.


(Translated by Madleine Hummler)

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