Iceman: Uncovering the Life & Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier / Edition 1

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On September 19, 1991 a couple hiking along an Alpine ridge stumbled upon a frozen, intact corpse melting out of a glacier. He was dubbed "the Iceman," and his discovery—along with the realization that he was actually 5,000 years old—set off a whirlwind of political, scientific, and media activity that made him an overnight sensation. In this remarkable and dramatic book, Brenda Fowler takes readers through the bizarre odyssey that began in the Stone Age and continued for years after the Iceman was unearthed.

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Editorial Reviews

Science News
“In this well-crafted retrospective, [Fowler] details the intrigue surrounding the man, who was eventually give the name Ozti. She fleshes out what we now know about Ozti’s origins and way of life, as well as how he died. . . . Fowler’s story also serves as a pointed look at the commercialization of modern science.”—Science News
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In September 1991, hikers in the Alps discovered a well-preserved frozen corpse; nearby lay a stone ax and swatches of leather and fur. The man turned out to have died in the early Bronze Age, making him an incalculable treasure for students of early human beings. Fowler, who has covered Central Europe for the New York Times, offers a brisk and easy-to-follow narrative, first of the great discovery, then of the personal and political struggles for control of the frozen body, which researchers eventually nicknamed Ötzi. Her tight and compelling account emphasizes the late-20th century people who acted, investigated and argued the science and law surrounding the man from the past. Fowler's journalistic experience serves her well as she introduces each of the characters: local archeologist Konrad Spindler, who first pronounced the corpse 4,000 years old; Reinhold Messner, "the best [mountain] climber who had ever lived"; museum curator Markus Egg; botanist Sigmar Bortenschlager ("a feisty strawberry blond"); and a few dozen others. Each gossipy controversy begot others; each scientific answer led to new questions. Should Ötzi be used to help the local economy, displaying him for tourists? Yes, said the government; no, cried the local priest. The scientists were split on the issue. Was Ötzi missing his genitalia? No (though they had "dried up like a leaf"); so how did the story that he had been castrated come to be circulated so widely? Archeological and present-day whodunits proceed in alternating steps throughout Fowler's attentive narrative; readers with any interest in early humans, in the politics of scientific discovery or in this region of Europe will want to dig in. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
In September 1991, a couple hiking near the Italy/Austria border found a 5,300-year-old mummified man half-submerged in a mountain glacier. He was called Otzi, Hauslabjoch Man and Homo tirolensis, but the name that stuck in the popular imagination was Iceman. Journalist Fowler's account, written as an unfolding mystery, is partly about the scientific detective work that sought to interpret the find and partly about the swirl of personalities and politics that has surrounded it. She tells about what has been learned about the corpse and his times by researchers, the scientists' egos and intellectual involvement, the manipulations that sought or granted or restricted access, and the unrelenting media frenzy it attracted. Readers will have to decide whether to admire or disdain the University of Innsbruck's archeologist Konrad Spindler and anatomist Werner Platzer. For six years they had scientific oversight of the studies. They preserved and controlled the mummy and information released about it and raised the huge amount of money that was needed. Not all wishes, they knew, could be fulfilled. If the public and media had been allowed the access they clamored for, the mummy would have deteriorated quickly and early guesses would have become established as fact (some did). If everyone who wanted a sample had got one, the entire corpse would soon have been reduced to tiny pieces. An especially intriguing thread in the story has to do with the work of Roswitha Goedecker-Ciolek, the technician who conserved and assembled the Iceman's clothing and who identified the amazing leggings. Line drawings recreate the fashion of a very ancient time and there are b/w photographs of the mummy andpersonalities surrounding the Iceman. Visitors can now see him at the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology in Bolzano, Italy. Superbly written popular science and a satisfying look at a serendipitous find that continues to tickle the curiosity of almost everybody. Category: Nature & Ecology. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Univ. of Chicago Press, 315p. illus. notes. bibliog. index., Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Edna M. Boardman; Minot, ND
Library Journal
In 1991, a frozen mummy emerged from a glacier in Northern Italy after 5000 years. The story of his discovery and the subsequent scientific study form the basis of this well-crafted and articulate book. Fowler's account places the scientific facts within a chronological narrative as it compellingly relays the death of the Alpine Iceman, the excitement of his remarkable discovery, and the tortured journey to understanding and commercializing him. Fowler, who covered the Iceman's discovery for the New York Times, highlights science's intensely human, egotistical, and fallible sides. The lead scientists' extreme measures to control and fund the expensive research and publicity are particularly telling. (Konrad Spindler's The Man in the Ice, LJ 12/94, played a large part in fundraising efforts.) In the end, less is told about the Iceman himself, while much is revealed about the scientific enterprise. Highly recommended as an excellent source for the popular audience and for library collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/99.]--Joyce L. Ogburn, Univ. of Washington, Seattle Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
David Papineau
Fowler's elegant and informative book divides itself equally between the scientific investigations and the political shenanigans . . . The overall moral of her story is that patience wins the day. The long trail of hard evidence leads to the reward of eventual truth.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226258232
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 330
  • Sales rank: 633,790
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.13 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Brenda Fowler's work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, and The Times (UK), among other publications.

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Read an Excerpt

alpine incident =
corpse found at hauslabjoch (niederjochferner) - advance report on 19th september 1991 around 12:00 p.m. climbers coming down from the finail summit found a partially melted-out corpse in the vicinity of the hauslabjoch (a little below it) on the niederjochferner. it is practically standing up in the ice. only head and shoulder areas are sticking out of the ice. the caretaker of the similaun Hfitte, markus pirpamer reported this to the gp [gendarmerie post] in soelden. He himself was on the site this afternoon. based on the equipment it is a mountain accident that happened many years ago. in vent it was learned that since the year 1938 a music professor from verona named capsoni, who was on the way from the schoene aussicht via the hauslabjoch to the similaun Hfitte is still missing. the recovery of the corpse will follow as far as can be seen on 9-20-1991. a further report will be submitted.

Early on the afternoon of Friday, September 20, an Austrian government helicopter touched down on the Hauslabjoch. Anton Koler climbed out and greeted Markus Pirpamer, who was on hand to show the craft where to land. Without much ceremony, the two men, who already knew each other, walked into the trench. Markus pointed out the body in the ice.

Koler saw right away that this was no ordinary glacier corpse. It was in one piece and had no obvious stench. But Koler had encountered death in many different ways in his line of work, and the fact that this glacier corpse was somewhat unusual did not really concern him. His first task was to document the site in case it turned out to be the scene of a crime. His hunch was that it was not.Apart from the body, the main evidence was the ax, fur, string, and wood scattered atop the rock ledge above the corpse. Pirparner had already picked up and examined these items, but Koler did not seem bothered that the evidence had been disturbed. In fact, he had to move the ax a little to get it to show up in a photograph against the camouflaging rock. This was not exactly pristine detective work, but he did not consider it too important in this case. If this were clearly the scene of a murder, the inspector might have taken dozens of photographs. But he now took only two: one of the evidence on the ledge, and the other of the emaciated corpse.

To aid in the extrication, he had brought along a little gadget his station had recently acquired. It was a small, pistol-like jackhammer that was supposed to be very effective at blasting away ice. He switched it on, and, without delay since the skies did not look promising, he set to chiseling away the ice. It was tough work. Markus soon offered to chip in, though he had never operated such a tool before.

As they hammered the ice away, slowly revealing more of the corpse's upper body, they noticed that it appeared to be draped over a boulder. The left arm reached over to the right, crossing under the chin, while the right one extended out and then down into the ice.

It did not look like a very comfortable position. But by this point the two men were thinking mainly of their own comfort. The further they dug, the deeper in ice, slush, and melted water they had to work.

Koler lay on his stomach on the ice, almost up to his shoulder in icy water and slush, and aimed the miniature jackhammer at the ice. He could not see exactly where the tip of the hammer was striking, and a few times he felt the machine drive into the corpse itself. Shreds of dried flesh rose to the surface of the water. But he was not worried about the damage. Recovering a body was never pretty. He wanted to finish the job as efficiently as possible, but the work was tougher than he had anticipated.

Less than an hour after they had started, with the corpse still packed in ice up to the hips, the tool ran out of compressed air. Koler did not have a refill. Moreover, the weather, which in the high Alps could change within minutes, had turned threatening. The rest would have to be finished later. Koler was mildly annoyed. He had flown up here at considerable expense, and now he was not going to be able to finish the job. He radioed the helicopter, which had retreated to a lower altitude, and took one more picture of the corpse. The two men had made progress. The top of the corpse's buttocks was now visible, as were the sides of the chest, all the way up to the head. Only the legs were still entirely buried in the dark ice. The damage from the jackhammer was also clearly visible, especially around the left hip. The stringy flesh was ripped out down to the bone.

While working over the corpse, Markus had noticed several rows of black marks on the corpse's back. They ran parallel to the spine and looked to him like burns or even brands. He was not sure what to make of them or the round break in the skin on the back of the head. Koler was operating on the assumption that if this was the scene of a crime, it must have happened a long time ago, probably in the previous century. He did not know who this might be, but considering that strange ax, he doubted it was the Italian music professor. The helicopter soon arrived, and Koler told Markus that the recovery would be resumed the next day. Markus then picked up the ax and set it inside the helicopter.

Back in Vent, Alois Pirpamer, a few gendarmes from Solden, and the local undertaker, who had been expecting a corpse, had gathered in the tavern of the Hotel Post to await the helicopter. They all knew each other and were joking and exchanging bits of news at Alois's regular table when they heard the rotors of the helicopter coming down through the rocky valley. Stepping outside, they watched it approach and noticed that no body bag was tied on beneath the craft. Alois wondered what had gone wrong. Koler climbed out of the helicopter and explained the situation to the other gendarmes and the undertaker, who had driven thirty miles up the valley to meet this corpse. According to Austrian law, only licensed undertakers were permitted to transport the dead along roadways. The day's trip might have been a bust, but the undertaker could still be confident that there was some business to be done here.

The ax was taken to the station in Solden. The commander was impressed by its easy, balanced swing. Curious about what kind of metal the blade was made of, he took out his car key and scratched through the dull brown surface. It was bright and orange, so the commander concluded that it must be copper. Unfortunately, he was not aware that copper axes had not been produced since the Stone Age. But he did think he should treat this piece of evidence with some care. He lined a box with old newspaper, bedded the ax inside, and then carried it downstairs to the air-raid shelter for safekeeping.

Several hours later, the gendarmes in Solden received a call from a German-speaking carabiniere in the Schnalstal who informed them that he had just located the grave of the Italian music professor. The body on the Hauslabjoch, therefore, must belong to someone else. He also concurred that the corpse was on Austrian territory. With little ado, the case had officially landed in the lap of the Austrians.



UP AHEAD, still some two hours away, the snow-covered Similaun rose like a huge white sail against the cloudless Alpine sky. The last time Helmut and Erika Simon had stood on this spot, ten years earlier, the trail through the snow to the summit had been easy to pick out. But this summer had been unusually warm, nearly all the snow at this altitude had melted, and the trail had vanished amid the jumble of ice pockets and jagged gray schist that formed the backbone of the Tyrolean Alps. On their previous trip, they had turned around here and headed back down the mountain. But this time, despite the wind they had battled all day, Helmut was determined to reach the summit of the 11,808-foot Similaun.

After strapping crampons on their boots, they prepared to cross the Niederjochferner, a massive glacier, the surface of which had the consistency of refrozen crushed ice. The glacier was melting, and the runoff water had bored a network of tiny tunnels and canals into its surface. As they stepped onto the glistening ice, the Simons could hear water gurgling and dripping as it moved through the glacier.

It was Wednesday, September 18, 1991. Their day had begun six hours earlier and about 3,600 feet lower in the tiny village of Vernagt in Italy's Schnalstal. Vernagt consisted of a few pretty farm houses and small inns, clustered around the sunny side of a man-made lake. At the crack of dawn, the Simons had pulled on their backpacks for a long day's hike. The route, which led up a steep valley, over the glacier, and up the snowy mountain's flanks to the summit, demanded stamina but no special climbing equipment. Every summer day, a dozen or more tourists reached the peak, one in a chain along the Austrian -Italian border. For the Simons, frequent visitors to the Schnalstal mountains, the path was tolerably challenging.

Both in their early fifties, the Simons were practical hikers who had spent the first few days of this vacation on shorter hikes, trying to acclimatize themselves to the high altitude and getting their office legs in shape. They were from Nuremberg, Germany, where Helmut, a cheery man with a bulldog's gait, worked as the custodian of the public library and Erika, a slight and solemn figure, put in her time at the local newspaper's personnel department. For a while, the going was smooth, and they fell into a nice rhythm of small steps across the crunchy expanse of the glacier, which flowed down the northern side of the mountain into Austria's Otztal. Suddenly, they drew to a halt.

Two yards ahead, the ice was split by a chasm that ran as far as they could see in both directions and was wide enough to swallow a person. Together the couple inched forward cautiously for a closer look into the wondrous abyss. The solid ice walls of the plunging crevasse were hues of gray, brown, and white and shone like opal or were swirled like some precious, dark marble. How deep it was, or where it led, the Simons could not fathom.

Climbing lore was filled with tales of menacing crevasses obscured by snow cover, and the Simons had heard their share. A hiker who inadvertently walked onto snow concealing a crevasse could break through and plunge into the ice. Sometimes, the snow would then fall in and bury the hiker alive. If the victim survived the fall, it might be almost impossible to claw out of the icy trench. Trapped hikers could then die of hypothermia. The risk was real, which was why people who ventured over snow-covered glaciers were supposed to rope up together in a line. If one fell through, then the others could try to pull him out.

Since this crevasse was visible, it was not really a problem, although the Simons had to walk parallel to it for several yards before the gap narrowed enough for them to be able to step across it. Again, they turned toward the summit. But they soon ran into another fissure and then another. Somehow they had entered a maze of crevasses. Again and again, they were forced to take long detours, looking for places to cross.

When they finally reached the rocky ridge that led up to the summit of the Similaun, Helmut glanced at his watch. It had taken them nearly three hours to get to this point when it should have taken only two, and now the sun was halfway down in the western sky. He realized that they might not have enough daylight left to make it back down the mountain. Erika wouldn't like it, but Helmut knew they could always get a bunk in the drafty old Similaun Hfitte, a rustic Alpine lodge where they had rested for a few hours over lunch on the way up the mountain, and then descend in the morning.

As they finally approached the summit, a younger couple overtook them. Minutes later, the four were crowded around the rocky cone of the summit, breathing hard and surveying the Alps of Italy and Austria. If you knew how to stand, you could get one foot in both countries, since the border ran right along the ridge. Helmut asked the other couple to take a picture of him and Erika next to the wooden cross that marked the highest point of the summit. After a short rest, all four set off back toward the Similaun lodge. By the time they arrived, it was nearly 6 pm, and the first stars were already sparkling in the pale evening sky.

Accessible only by foot over mountain trails, the timbered, three-story lodge was situated well above the tree line in the nook of a pass over the main Alpine ridge, a stone's throw from the Austrian border. The cramped bunk rooms had no running water, and the toilet was outside. Anyone who had to visit it in the middle of the night faced a miserable dash along the edge of a cliff, guided only by a dim bulb hanging over the door. The Simons, who had nothing but the sweaty clothes on their backs, were not prepared to spend the night away from their cozy bed-and-breakfast in the valley, but Helmut persuaded his wife it was too dark to risk the descent. Anyway, as alpine lodges went, the century-old Hfitte had a lot of character. They could get a hearty meal here, plenty of Italian red wine, and awaken with the sun.

The next morning, Helmut rose quickly and went outside to check the weather. The sky was radiant. He stood for a while looking at the sun illuminating the mighty snowcap on a mountain range to the west. The night before, the couple he and Erika had met at the summit had invited them on a climb up the nearby Finail Peak. He knew Erika's first priority was to hurry down the mountain and into a hot shower. But on such a day, and with such good company, he knew he would be able to convince her to make a go at another summit.

After breakfast, the Simons and their new friends started on the trail to the Finail Peak, which closely followed the main Alpine ridge. The landscape was lunar in its bleakness. The reddish gray stone that formed the ridge was gradually crumbling away, and the result was an endless sea of uneven rock slabs. Some of these boulders balanced precariously for centuries before finally crashing down on one side or the other of the ridge. Occasionally the trail traversed a field of snow over ice embedded in the broken rock. At this altitude, far above the tree line, real soil was nonexistent. Even at the peak of summer, only a few weedy sprouts found places to plant themselves amid the heaps of stone. Walking demanded strict attention, since a misplaced step could send a person hurtling against a rough boulder or careening down a slope.

Shortly after noon, the happy group reached the summit. Toward Italy, they looked down on a boulder-strewn and treeless landscape that merged gradually with the pine forests and then ended in a burst of emerald green and marine blue. These were the pastures and artificial lake at Vernagt. The view into Austria was not nearly as inviting. Though the decline was more gradual, the slopes were draped in deep snow and ice. To the northeast, more craggy Otztal mountains, like choppy waves on a stormy sea, extended to the horizon.

As exciting as the panorama was, no one wanted to linger on the narrow ledge, where they were buffeted by gusts coming up from the Schnalstal. The two couples exchanged addresses and then quit the summit. Since the Austrians were headed into the Otztal, the couples' paths soon diverged, and they paused to say warm goodbyes.

The younger couple headed down the rocky slope and the Simons turned to canvass the landscape ahead for a marker that would get them on the trail to the lodge. Erika spotted a pile of rocks with a stick coming out the top about one hundred yards away, and the couple began hiking toward it. Known colloquially as a Steinmanndl, or "little stone man," in German, such man-made markers were stacked up every so often, and occasionally planted with a stick, to guide tourists along sections of Alpine trails. A minute later, they reached a low ridge of rock that formed a wall around a long trench. The floor of the trench was filled with melted water, ice, and snow. To circumvent the water, they proceeded to one side, moving along the inside of the trench, over snow and rock. Helmut was walking in the lead when he suddenly caught sight of something dark against the white snow. Just a half hour earlier he had been outraged to see broken glass from a champagne bottle on the summit of the Finail. At first he thought it was just more trash, and he silently cursed the lazy tourist who had done it. But his wife's next words came in the same instant in which he, too, recognized what he was seeing.

"Look, it's a person!"' Erika exclaimed.

Aghast, they halted, steps from a human body stuck in the ice. Instinctively, they veered from the macabre scene and scrambled up four or five steps onto a ledge in the low ridge that nearly enveloped the trench. In the next instant, Helmut sprinted back to try to recall the Austrian couple. After some eighty yards he stopped, yelling their names against the wind. He scanned the landscape below but, seeing no one, he turned and dashed back to Erika, who was still standing speechless on the ledge above the body. Helmut's heart pounded.

There, protruding from a solid bed of ice, was a torso, face down. Not a hair remained on the head. The shoulders and upper back were naked. The skin was brown and stretched so tautly across the back and shoulders that the ribs were visible. It looked emaciated. A dozen ideas flickered through their minds. They wondered who it could be and what had happened. Since the shoulders were so narrow, Erika decided it must be the corpse of a woman.

The face appeared to rest on a cushion of slush and ice. Clumps of dark stringy material underneath the chin reminded Erika of seaweed on a beach. On the back of the head was a circular break in the skin. It looked like a wound, but the Simons did not think too much about it or even wonder why the skin was still intact. They did not have much to compare this to.

Helmut started removing his camera from its case, but Erika protested and admonished him for even thinking of taking a photograph. It was the height of disrespect to make an image of a dead person, she said.

But Helmut insisted. If this were his relative, he would want to know exactly what had happened. Still on the ledge several feet above the corpse, he crouched and aimed his camera. Then, thinking better, he pushed the telephoto button, the lens glided out, and he snapped the picture. He could have taken another, but he thought one was enough.

Emboldened, Helmut then descended into the trench for a closer look at the corpse. Erika stayed glued to the ledge. Not far from the head, Helmut noticed something lying on the ice, and he stooped to pick it up. It was a flattened bundle wrapped in white birch bark and apparently tied up with leather laces. As he turned it in his hands, he noted how fragile and soggy it was. To Erika it looked like something a bird might have carried up. Helmut had no idea what it could be or even whether it was anything at all. After another moment's contemplation, he tossed it aside.

Nearby was a piece of a blue rubber ski clip, the kind he himself had used a decade earlier to bind his skis together. Helmut did not really consider whether this object had belonged to the person whose corpse now lay here in front of them. The Simons did not speak much. Neither did they touch the corpse. Moments earlier, they had been chatting merrily with their young friends, and now, abruptly, they had stumbled up

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Table of Contents

A Note on Sources
Prologue - No Room in the Helicopter
1. The First to See It
2. A Difficult Recovery
3. A Great Moment for Science
4. Italy Is Watching
5. Evidence of Distress
6. The Mummy to Market
7. A Castrated Egyptian
8. Spindler's Story
9. Expanding Markets
10. "A Proper Forefather"
11. The Place He Came to Lie

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