The Iceman is not a burial: reply to Vanzetti et al. (2010)

Albert Zink, Angela Graefen, Klaus Oeggl, James Dickson, Walter Leitner, Günther Kaufmann, Angelika Fleckinger, Paul Gostner & Eduard Egarter-Vigl

Articles in this discussion

Vanzetti et al. (2010) recently advanced the hypothesis that the complex assemblage of the Tyrolean Iceman represented an intentional, ceremonial burial, as opposed to his having suffered accidental or violent death in the high alpine area, and his body having then naturally mummified in the conditions of the local environment. This hypothesis was mainly based, on the one hand on the spatial distribution of the find complex, and on the other, on previously published pollen analyses, which (in the opinion of Vanzetti et al.) point towards a time-span of several months between death and subsequent placement of the body at the Tisenjoch pass. Although the initial theory that the find complex was re-distributed after death concurs with existing theories, the conclusions drawn from this observation by Vanzetti et al. disregard several important factors. In our opinion, neither the distribution of objects nor the palaeobotanical data support a 'burial hypothesis', and the forensic-pathological data actually contradicts the scenario put forward by Vanzetti et al. They also describe several archaeohistorical parallels (grave goods, burial traditions) as supporting the burial hypothesis; however, these arguments are unconvincing when analysed more closely.

Object distribution

The authors claim that their theory is substantiated by spatial distribution of the accompanying objects, botanical evidence and the preservation state of the mummy. The statistical analyses indicate that the object distribution is neither completely random nor determined by the shape of the rock depression in which the Iceman lay, but rather show two distribution centres, one near the 'mummy boulder' upon which the body was found and another, where the rucksack frame, the axe and the bow were found, approximately 5m SSW of the mummy boulder. This confirms the theory, put forward in earlier publications (Heiss & Oeggl 2009), that the find complex underwent re-positioning after the Iceman's death as a result of environmental pressure (e.g. meltwater). However, this insight can only serve to identify the primary deposition site of the finds, but it cannot explain why the objects were placed there. A similar distribution could occur either in a burial or in the case of a violent death.

Palaeobotanical evidence

A cornerstone of Vanzetti et al.'s theory is the purported chronological discrepancy between the pollen from the Iceman's intestine content (quoted by Vanzetti as indicating a time of death in early to mid spring) and that of the surrounding meltwater (pointing toward a deposition of the body in late summer to autumn). The authors regard this as evidence that the Iceman met his death in the lower valley in spring, having been preserved by dry mummification during summer and then interred in the region of the high alpine Tisenjoch pass until several months later. Vanzetti's entire theory of spatial redistribution is based on the assumption that the ice surrounding the body thawed and re-froze several times after deposition, causing a characteristic dispersal of the objects. If this is indeed the case, then the thawing process would have also affected the stratigraphy of the ice layers: pollen from various points in time would have been mingled in the meltwater during each thawing cycle, thus rendering the ice strata unsuitable for any kind of chronological placement (Oeggl 2009). In this context it has to be stated that the significance of the method to diagnose the Iceman's death in spring by analysing pollen from his gut (Oeggl 2000, 2009), has just been called into question. The crucial matter is the pollen of hop hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia) retaining its cellular contents. A recent paper in this journal by Groenman-van Waateringe (2011) suggests that the Iceman drank an infusion made of hop hornbeam bark with adhering pollen or chewed its bark for medical purposes before he died. The paper claims that because the pollen content of hop hornbeam endures for several months the consumption could have happened at any time of the year. We reject this interpretation because, besides the pollen of hop hornbeam, the pollen of birch (Betula), pine (Pinus) and whortleberry type (Vaccinium-type sensu Beug 1961) also show the preservation of the pollen interior (Oeggl 2000). Airborne pollen of birch and pine may be deposited on hop hornbeam bark in small quantities, but not pollen of the whortleberry-type. This pollen type encompasses only insect-pollinated species and its natural deposition on bark is hard to explain. Furthermore, an infusion causes swelling of pollen due to the uptake of water. Consequently the apertures break up and the pollen interior is digested by enzymes in the gastro-intestinal tract (Linskens & Jorde 1997). This is disproved by the large amount (about 80 per cent) of hop hornbeam pollen with preserved pollen content. Moreover, in case of chewing bark it is to be expected that bark remains of hop hornbeam occur in the ingesta, similar to proven intentional ingested cereal pollen accompanied by plenty of husks and bran (Oeggl et al. 2005). However, neither bark nor fibre remains of hop hornbeam were detected in the Iceman's gut remains; therefore we retain our interpretation that hop hornbeam pollen was absorbed by drinking water during its flowering season in spring (Oeggl 2000).

Taphonomic and forensic evidence

The body treatment procedure described by Vanzetti et al., namely storage in ice from spring to autumn, does not account for the extreme level of desiccation observed in the Iceman's body. Ambach (1992) demonstrated that such a kind of storage can only explain a 30 per cent loss of water from the body. However, the body mass reconstructions by Ruff et al. (2006) indicate that the Iceman lost more than 75 per cent of his total body water mass, which is consistent with freeze-drying and not with the scenario suggested by Vanzetti et al. Furthermore, the suggested method of storing the body in ice is hardly feasible bearing in mind the purported timeframe (from death in spring until burial in autumn) as no fresh ice would be available in the valley during the summer months and would have had to have been gathered daily at a high altitude. Not even the most careful conservation efforts would have been sufficient to completely prevent insect infestation, yet no signs of the latter can be seen in the mummy.

The most significant evidence for the desiccation process having taken place at the find site is the position of the left arm and the uninterrupted flow of blood from the injured artery through the wound canal to the skin. This demonstrates without doubt that the arm was in this position at death while the blood was still circulating. If the body had been intended for burial, the arm could (and surely would) have been brought back to the side after rigor mortis had subsided. Vanzetti et al. postulate that the body was deposited on the glacier in a normal position, and that the awkward position of the arm occurred during the first ice melt. If, as the authors suggest, the Iceman died some months earlier and underwent mummification before burial, such a scenario would be impossible without causing extensive damage to the stiffened arm or shoulder. However, the shoulder joint and its adjoining ligaments are still in a correct anatomical position, proving that the body could not have been transported up the mountain in a 'normal' burial position. The known Copper Age burials were mostly interred in a flexed position; even if one were to regard the Iceman as an exception to this rule, it is hardly plausible that the arm would have been intentionally retained in such an angular position.

Archaeohistorical evidence

Vanzetti et al. quote putative ethno-historical parallels from sixteenth-century Tyrol, in which the bodies of those who died during the winter months were kept in cold rooms until burial. However, this system was a characteristic of the Christian religion in early modern times in which bodies were preserved until spring when they could be interred in hallowed ground. If the bodies were carried over Alpine passes, this would be only to reach the nearest cemetery — bodies were not simply deposited in the high Alps. No evidence of body storage exists for the Neolithic and Copper Age period. The whole find complex is in itself unique: ritual burial on mountain passes or peaks are known from various South American cultures, but no such cases are known from the Alpine area. On the contrary: several Copper Age burials are known for this area, all of which were situated close to settlements.

Additional comments on replies to Vanzetti et al.

With regard to the replies put forward by Fasolo (2011) and Carancini & Mattioli (2011) respectively, it is unfortunate that many of the more recent Iceman publications seem to have been disregarded. Both replies suggest that the Iceman was unlikely to have reached the high altitude of his own accord due to 'debilitating osteopathic conditions' (quoting a 1999 publication) or 'difficulty walking because of previous damage to articulations' (without citation). Although a moderate degree of osteoarthrosis is evident, this is well within the normal range of degeneration given the man's age and possibly strenuous life, and is far from being debilitating (Gostner et al. 2004; Lippert et al. 2007). On the contrary, the cortical thickness and prominent entheses of the Iceman's lower limbs indicate that this individual was in no way a frail invalid, but well-muscled and in all probability used to mountain wanderings (Murphy et al. 2003).

Fasolo also underlines the Iceman's putative weakened state by referring to 'unhealed broken ribs' (without naming a source), although several radiological studies clearly point out that the rib fractures were already healed by the time of death (Gostner & Egarter Vigl 2002; Murphy et al. 2003). Furthermore, Fasolo declares that the arrowhead 'can be seen on the X-ray image in a transversal position which would not have affected the sub-clavicular artery'. Whether this is a misquotation of the cited study (which reports no such thing) or the author's own deduction, the statement is false: computer tomographic analysis (Lippert et al. 2007; Pernter et al. 2007) clearly shows the extensive injury caused to the subclavian artery. Carancini and Mattioli suggest that the Iceman survived the initial injury, only to succumb to an infection several days later. However, a wound of this size to the blood vessel would in all probability have let to death within a short time. Even in the unlikely event of the Iceman having survived the injury, vital reactions (e.g. haemosiderin traces) would have been evident in the region of the wound, as was the case in the hand injury (Nerlich et al. 2003). Although it was long believed that the cereals and venison in the Iceman's intestine, which Carancini and Mattioli refer to, were indeed the last meal, more recent studies have identified the Iceman's completely full stomach (unpublished data). It is hardly plausible that a man would have eaten several large meals only hours before death from septicaemia, or while suffering from the considerable pain which the shoulder injury must have caused.

Fasolo disregards the study by Pernter et al., quoting an older scenario in which the Iceman actively fled into the highest altitudes after the attack. He also deems the trajectory of the arrow wound canal (in an upward direction) inconsistent with an ambush, and suggests that the arrowhead was 'symbolically or ritually inserted', or at least shot from very close range; a shot fired from a longer distance would have followed a pronounced parabolic trajectory, thus causing an downward sloping wound canal. This is not necessarily the case: an arrow shot from a moderately powerful wooden bow can reach a target of at least 30–40m away with only a mimimal parabolic flight. The upward angle of the arrow's path may be explained by the archer having stood at a slightly lower altitude than the Iceman, or perhaps due to the Iceman having been crouched over his meal at the time he was shot. Fasolo's belief that a broad arrowhead had little capability of piercing a body is clearly contradicted by ballistic experiments (Karger et al. 1998). The smaller of the two holes in the scapula, which is believed by Fasolo to be 'created by prolonged perforation, unlike what may be expected from by an arrowshot' is, in our opinion, due to the fragmentation effect often observed in arrow and crossbow injuries (Karger et al. 1998). Why such an injury should be atypical for a projectile but in favour of prolonged perforation, is not clarified by the author.

The concluding remarks, that the position of the arm is due to postmortal ice pressure, have already been shown to be impossible in our previous comments; Carancini's suggestion that 'submission to fire' may account for the Iceman's preservational status stands in contrast with all forensic data (such body treatment would leave clear signs).

Carancini and Mattioli draw attention to the apparently unresolved question of the 'fight with multiple opponents (suggested by traces of blood from four different individuals on the objects accompanying the Iceman)'. This putative finding was reported by Loy in 1998, but never published in peer-reviewed journals, and could not be confirmed in recent re-examinations.

Carancini and Mattioli also declare that the 14C dating has revealed a significantly younger date for the axe shaft than for the Iceman himself. This is not so: The three calibrated dates range from 4380–4570 BP, the median date is 4460±40 BP (Kutschera et al. 2000; Kutschera & Müller 2003). The much younger date referred to by Carancini and Mattioli is simply an unlikely but statistically possible point within the probability range after calibration, the variation deriving from the calibration curve method (which can seldom pinpoint a single exact date). This is not only the case for the axe shaft, but for many other accompanying finds.

With regard to the acknowledgements noted by Renato Fasolo, Eduard Egarter Vigl wishes to point out that apart from providing photographic and radiological images, he did not contribute to the former's manuscript and does not endorse this theory in any way, but regards the 'personal disaster' hypothesis to be the most plausible in the light of all research to date.


Twenty years after the historic find, first-hand research is still ongoing and regularly provides new insights. To be of value to Iceman research, studies must be backed up by convincing evidence and take existing studies and recent findings into regard.

While the study carried out by Vanzetti et al. does indeed contribute to understanding the post mortal distribution of the find complex, it does not provide convincing evidence for the 'burial theory' postulated by the authors. The botanical data cited by the authors as evidence of a prolonged time period between death and transportation to the Tisenjoch site is invalid, as the same ice thaws which are essential to the authors' theory would also have disturbed the ice stratigraphy. The ethnological and archaeological parallels suggested by the authors date carry no conviction, as they are only known from time periods dating several millennia after the death of the iceman, and serve a very different purpose than that put forward here. Finally, the forensic evidence renders the proposed burial scenario impossible.


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* Author for correspondence

  • Albert Zink*
    Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, EURAC, Viale Druso 1, 39100 Bolzano, Italy (Email:
  • Angela Graefen
    Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, EURAC, Viale Druso 1, 39100 Bolzano, Italy
  • Klaus Oeggl
    Institute of Botany, University of Innsbruck, Sternwartestraße 15, Innsbruck 6020, Austria
  • James Dickson
    School of Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK
  • Walter Leitner
    Institute of Archaeology, Innsbruck University, Langer Weg 11, A-6020 Innsbruck, Austria
  • Günther Kaufmann
    South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Museum str. 43 - Via Museo 43, 39100 Bolzano, Italy
  • Angelika Fleckinger
    South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Museum str. 43 - Via Museo 43, 39100 Bolzano, Italy
  • Paul Gostner
    Department of Radiodiagnostics, Central Hospital Bolzano, Via Fago 14, 39100 Bolzano, Italy
  • Eduard Egarter-Vigl
    Division of Pathology, General Regional Hospital, Via Lorenz Böhler 5, 39100 Bolzano, Italy