The Death of ‘Otzi’ , the Alpine Iceman

The film I made last summer in the Alps was screened at 9.00 PM on May 11th  as part of a new documentary series, Mummies Alive on the Yesterday channel. The programme was about the internationally celebrated ‘iceman’, now known as Otzi (after the mountain range where he was found). The body was discovered by hikers in 1991 and was removed from its findspot by police and emergency services, unaware of its archaeological importance. The dead man was in his mid-forties, fully clothed and has been radiocarbon dated to around 3300 BC. I well recall that this date caused some surprise in archaeological circles, largely because it pushed the Copper Age back by some 500 years. He was carrying a copper axe. This early date would accord well, too, with the copper axe-marks found in supposedly late Neolithic chalk-cut pits near Stonehenge.

Now I don’t want to get involved in the minutiae of Otzi’s death. Indeed, I think people have become bogged down in detail – to such an extent that they have missed obvious parallels between this find and other preserved human remains in northern Europe: the so-called Bog Bodies. I also think we are seeing a split here between the more theoretical/anthropological approaches to prehistory in Britain, compared with a more functionalist approach on the continent. Normally my loyalties would lie somewhere in the mid-North Sea, but not in this instance, when I stand firmly with the Brits.

Unfortunately I never saw any of the latest forensic evidence when I filmed my bits. But so far as I can judge, it was very competent and well presented. The trouble was, it treated Otzi’s killer or killers (which I think more probable) as if they were 21st Century criminals, with modern motives and patterns of thought. The filmmakers seemed to share this view, as well. But Otzi and his killers weren’t modern – not even slightly. They were prehistoric with prehistoric ways of thinking. So the forensic scientists thought that the killer left the copper axe at the scene of the ‘crime’, because he believed it would link him to the murder, were he to be found with it! I have to confess, I laughed out loud when I heard that. Oh dear. As a friend of ours likes to say on such occasions: ‘There’s too far to travel…’

So let me summarise why I am absolutely convinced that Otzi’s death was not accidental, nor indeed the result of a ‘crime’. I don’t think it was a simple ‘sacrifice’ either – any more than Lindow or Tollund Man were. And I’m not saying, either, that these three deaths were part of a long-lived cult. I am saying, however, that there are broad parallels that link them quite closely together as part of what one might call ritualised killings. For all we know, the victims, like modern jihadists, might have welcomed their deaths. We just don’t know.

We know from the pollen in his lower bowel that Otzi began his final journey in the valley. He then made his way up the mountain, through the tree-line. High in the snow-belt he ate a final meal of meat. Special meals are a frequent feature of many north European bog body finds. At some point near his death his hand was cut, possibly by a flint dagger, but it wasn’t a fatal cut. Again, non-fatal wounds are often associated with bog bodies. His death was caused by an arrow which entered high on his back/shoulder and lodged against his ribs. There was further forensic evidence to suggest that the arrow caused his death. In addition, the back of his skull had also been bashed by a heavy object (a rock?), leading to a severe bleed within the cranium. This pattern of multiple causes of death, sometimes jokingly referred-to by archaeologists as ‘overkill’, is a pattern we observe at Lindow, Tollund and other bog body finds, and it’s one of the reasons I suggest his death may have involved a group of killers.

The body lay face down and does not appear to have been disturbed. A rather strange group of finds, including a seemingly incomplete bow-shaft, plus several arrows and a fine hafted copper axe had been placed on a low rock alongside the body, which had also fallen on a rock. Had this deliberate arrangement on the ground been viewed by even a student prehistorian, I think they would not have come up with any of the (to me) ludicrous murder/robbery hypotheses.

And then of course there is the actual findspot at 3,210 metres (10,530 feet) above sea level. This is a classic ‘liminal zone’. And just like a bog or fen, it is far removed from the world inhabited by man. It would have been seen as lying on the very doorstep of the Next World, the realm of the gods and ancestors. Otzi and the people who killed him (who may have been his friends and family for all we know) had made the journey and had found closure there. The very least we can do, some five thousand years later, is give them cultural credit: this wasn’t an act of barbaric savagery. The people who were capable of making that axe, the bow, the flints and those superb shoes knew what they were doing, as did Otzi himself. The pathologist believed his death would have been a surprise, that he was unaware that his killer was behind him. But was he? I very much doubt it. I suspect all the players in this grim final scene knew only too well what it was they were doing.

My personal venture into the world of modern crime in ‘The Lifers Club’ and more recently in ‘The Way, The Truth and The Dead’ (which is still in need of subscribers), has given me huge respect for forensic science. The trouble is, it needs to be applied with great care, as we have seen in a recent review in Britain and of course in the high profile Amanda Knox case. The results of science have always had to be interpreted in context, and this applies most particularly to this ancient ‘case’.

Sadly It seems that 100 years of archaeology and prehistory don’t pull as much weight as one man with a scanner and an electron microscope. It also says quite a lot about the modern world and our uncritical acceptance, indeed our worship, of the god Technology. Sadly, the mis-interpretation of forensic evidence can also lead to judicial slaying, as the barbaric rituals still practised in penitentiaries in the United States continue to demonstrate. So I leave you with this consoling thought: are we really any better than our Copper Age ancestors?

Mummies Alive is available to watch online until May 18th 2015


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