Happy Birthday Otzi

By Brigid Gallagher 19/09/2011

Latest reconstruction of Otzi for the Otzi 20 exhibition
Latest reconstruction of Otzi for the Otzi 20 exhibition

20 years ago today the mummified remains of a man, nicknamed Otzi, was discovered by hikers in the Italian Alps. This find has to be mentioned because it is simply fantastic and quite unique so far, and has led to many many archaeological scientists and preservation experts coming together to understand the life and culture of this one man, who lived 5,000 years ago.

The days following Sept 19 1991 are also one of those periods in time that made an impact on me as a 17 year old New Zealander studying hard at Papatoetoe High School, thinking about the future, post school education… and an ancient human being discovered on the other side of the world, outside all parameters of time that the 6th form was studying that year.

It wasn’t the actual discovery that was exciting, but the realisation that there was this whole unseen world within archaeology which saw past the obvious physical form of an artefact, monument or site, to the bits inside the artefact, at the chemical and molecular level.   Here was an incredibly well preserved person, who looked so, well preserved…and then the papers told us the scientists could probably tell us what he had for his last meal. 

I wanted to be one of the people who finds out about that!

So now, after 20 years of research and conservation, with a recent commission to reconstruct the face of Otzi, which was published in the NZ Herald earlier this year, the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology has created a special exhibition, ‘Otzi 20’, to share ‘the most recent scientific studies’ and other ‘lesser known aspects surrounding this sensational find’. 

The website that accompanies the exhibition takes you on a journey from the point of first discovery, through the various facts and research that were revealed during subsequent analysis.  The website is the source of much of the information in this report and the images…thank you.

The website could leave you feeling as though you want to know more (it definitely does me), but I guess that is the hook…you will buy a ticket to the exhibition and see more for yourself.  But over it all it does well to present through text and photos, the context Otzi was found, what happened next, and the analytical discoveries…however I was disappointed with, and this may be largely subjective, the information regarding the preservation, or conservation, of the actual artefacts.  The ones that have been carefully pieced together, reconstructed and stabilised, and are likely to fill a fair bulk of the exhibition.

But what we do know now from the 20 years of research is that Otzi is likely to have died in the spring or early summer, he was 45, about 1.60m tall with brown wavy shoulder length hair, with a beard.  He had brown eyes.  He suffered from degenerative joint conditions.  His teeth were good with no decay and he may have been involved in small scale metal working on the South side of the Alps, and the soot on his lungs suggests regular use of an open fire.  He had the beginnings of a brain tumour, though his death is more closely linked with an arrow in the shoulder, hand to hand combat shortly before death and blunt trauma at the back of his head, either from an attack or a fall, which left him bleeding and a skull fracture. Otzi did have time to pull himself onto a rock, on which he was still lying in 1991, and lay out some of his possessions around him, before death came.

The Synopsis

Otzi was found by German hikers Helmut and Erika Simon on September 19 1991, at an altitude of 3,210 meters (10,500 feet) — almost as high as Mt Cook — in the Otztal Alps in South Tyrol, Italy.   Thinking they had found a fallen hiker, they took photos, and reported it to the Police.

The position Otzi was found, trapped in glacial ice
The position Otzi was found, trapped in glacial ice

4 days later, under the leadership of Rainer Henn of Innsbruck University Institute of Forensic Medicine, with cameras capturing the event, Otzi’s body was cut from the glacial ice in which he had been entombed. Otzi was carried in a body bag, with some of his recovered possessions (others were previously removed in a rubbish sack), down the mountains.  

6 days after discovery, archaeologist Konrad Spindler from Innsbruck University, looked at the artefacts found with Otzi and based on the form of the copper alloy axe, suggested that he was at least 4,000 years old.

14 days after discovery the first archaeological survey was conducted at the find scene.  This lasted 3 days and aimed to locate the position of the body, associated finds and a contour plan of the site. Due to the early onset of winter, a second archaeological investigation did not occur until July 20 1992 and lasted until August 25.

On September 25 2000, Otzi was completely thawed for the first time, after being stored in cold storage since discovery. This was the opportunity to start the analysis of his gut and intestine content.

Why was he so well preserved?

The thing about many mummies is, that because they are so well preserved, albeit it in a desiccated or shrunken form, they spark the imagination and allow anybody to connect with the mummified person, far more than an object ever can. 

Otzi - an example of a natural and wet mummy
Otzi - an example of a natural and wet mummy

Otzi himself is a very particular mummy in that his skin remains intact, he appears relatively hydrated or moist, and these factors allow you to believe that he may only be asleep (although undernourished I will admit).  He has also allowed scientists to implement a complete research study of his remains, unlike most found, say in Egypt, because they remain relatively unchanged.  The reasons for this are that Otzi is both:

 A natural mummy — the result of natural environmental processes rather than human intervention.  Many mummies are the result of post death burial rituals, desiccation and particular storage or burial conditions, imposed on the body by other members of their society.  Fats and oils may be applied to the skin to aid preservation, and organs removed or rearranged. In a natural mummification, the body has not been deliberately preserved.  

A wet mummy – is one that retains humidity or moisture in the individual cells.  This level of hydration has meant that Otzi has retained elasticity in his skin (making it still appear nourished) and means that scientists could rely on the cellular tissue and the body contents to perform high spec analysis, with greater reliability and decreased error factors.

The reason that both of these particular mummy types have occurred is:

  1. Otzi died on the mountainside rather than within a settlement. Therefore he does not appear to have been through any burial rites or deliberate interference post death. X-ray analysis and forensic investigation of his anatomical structure, morphology and condition has lead to the conclusion that he was wounded in the left shoulder by an arrow.  There is speculation that a rival hunting party may have been to blame as it was common practise of hunters of the period to aim arrows at the left shoulder of an animal to take it down. X-ray analysis revealed a flint arrowhead in the shoulder, and this lead further investigation of the area revealing a small incision in Otzi’s skin where it entered.
  2. It is generally thought that soon after death Otzi was covered with snow and ice which have acted as a protective layer over time. Climate data has shown that at least 2 warm periods occurred after Otzi’s death, in the 3rd century BC and Roman period ~ 50BC — 400AD, it is unknown what the effects of these was.  It is clear that Otzi escaped movement by glacier due to his position.
Otzi's hand perfectly preserved
Otzi's hand perfectly preserved

Luckily for us, these events did all occur together, and as a result the world has had the chance to get a snap shot in time.  Radio carbon, C14, dating from 4 different institutions have confirmed the date of the snapshot as 3350-3100BC.

That is approximately 600 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed, and 700 years before Stonehenge in England.

For us in the Pacific, this is about the same time that Polynesians appear to start their voyage into the Pacific.  There is evidence of settlement in Australia and Papua New Guinea in the article ‘Pre-Lapita Valuable in Island Melanesia’, by Robin Torrance.  Later in 3200BP theTe Ara website says that this date marks the movement of people by sail from the Solomon Islands into the Pacific Ocean, to settle Melanesia.

But what about Otzi now?

After much debate surrounding ethics, professional guidlines, research and public interest Otzi is on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.  The website describes his resting place as needing to simulate the environment in which he was found and preserved so well.

In this case a chamber has been constructed to maintain Otzi’s climate at -6 degrees C with a relative humidity (moisture saturation of the surrounding air) of 98%.  His chamber has a low lit 40 x 40cm window, determined due to conservation constraints…the bigger the window the greater probability of environmental fluctuations.  The small window and low lighting also encourages respect and privacy for Otzi, as a human being, the website suggests.

For the long term preservation of Otzi it is crucial that his surrounding environment remain stable, with little to no fluctuation.  Organic materials, in this case skin, are incredibly susceptible to deterioration if the conditions in which they have been contained in their burial environment suddenly changes. With fluctuations or sudden exposure to change, deterioration is in fact accelerated.  With Otzi’s high water content, exposure to ambient or outside air conditions, could have activated an evaporation rate that would have left Otzi shrunken, twisted, and desiccated.  The physical results of this would have been cellular collapse, cracking and flaking of the skin, and lessened scientific potential.

As Otzi is being made available to future researchers by its governors, ensuring that he remains in a pristine condition (as far as possible) is crucial.

As for the list of what he was found with, it included arrows, first aid kit, coat, hat, leggings, storage containers…please go to the website, it is amazing. 

He had blacken lungs from open fire use, tattoos at points where ancient human osteologists have concluded he had joint problems, his mitochondrial DNA indicated central European origin…there is even pollen analysis which reconstructs the landscape environment he lived in for the last few weeks…and a section referencing publication of research and analysis results.

And as for his final meal as I was promised as a teenager…Otzi’s second to last meal was mountain goat, probably eaten as a dried jerky…and last was venison, forest berries and einkorn ( a type of wheat)…yum!

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