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Otzi the Iceman

One of the Greatest Archaeological Discoveries of the 20th Century


On September 19, 1991, two German tourists were hiking in the Otzal Alps near the Italian-Austrian border when they discovered Europe's oldest known mummy sticking out of the ice. Otzi, as the Iceman is now known, had been naturally mummified by the ice and kept in amazing condition for approximately 5,300 years. Research on Otzi's preserved body and the various artifacts found with it continues to reveal much about the life of Copper Age Europeans.

The Discovery

Around 1:30 p.m. on September 19, 1991, Erika and Helmut Simon from Nuremberg, Germany were descending from the Finail peak in the Tisenjoch area of the Otzal Alps when they decided to take a shortcut off the beaten path. When they did so, they noticed something brown sticking out of the ice.

Upon further inspection, the Simons discovered that it was a human corpse. Although they could see the back of the head, arms, and back, the bottom of the torso was still embedded in the ice.

The Simons took a picture and then reported their discovery at the Similaun Refuge. At the time, however, the Simons and the authorities all thought the body belonged to a modern man who had recently suffered a deadly accident.

Removing Otzi's Body

Removing a frozen body that's stuck in the ice at 10,530 feet (3,210 meters) above sea level is never easy. Adding bad weather and a lack of proper excavation equipment made the job even more difficult. After four days of trying, Otzi's body was finally removed from the ice on September 23, 1991.

Sealed up in a body bag, Otzi was flown via helicopter to the town of Vent, where his body was transferred to a wooden coffin and taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Innsbruck. At Innsbruck, archaeologist Konrad Spindler determined that the body found in the ice was definitely not a modern man; instead, he was at least 4,000 years old!

It was then that they realized that Otzi the Iceman was one of the most amazing archaeological finds of the century.

Who Was Otzi the Iceman?

Otzi was a man who lived sometime between 3350 and 3100 BCE in what is called the Chalcolithic or Copper Age. He stood approximately five feet and three inches high and at the end of his life suffered from both arthritis and whipworm. He died at about the age of 46.

At first, it was believed that Otzi had died from exposure, but in 2001 an X-ray revealed that there was a stone arrowhead embedded in his left shoulder. A CT scan in 2005 discovered that the arrowhead had severed one of the Otzi's arteries, most likely causing his death.

So many questions remain regarding Otzi the Iceman. Why was his last meal of ibex and venison? Why did Otzi have over 50 tattoos on his body? Who shot him? Why was the blood of four people found on his clothes and weapons? Perhaps more research will help answer these and other questions about Otzi the Iceman.

For further information about the important archaeological discoveries made by studying Otzi the Iceman, please see the Otzi the Iceman article on About.com's Archaeology site.

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