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  • Elena Settimini

Ötzi the Iceman

As an art historian, I do not have many occasions to discuss mummies, but the enigmatic murder history of “Ötzi the Iceman” stole my heart, as well as the heart of many people all around the world.

Ötzi is a mummy from the Copper Age who was accidentally discovered together with his clothing and equipment on the Senales Valley Glacier (Italy) and has been the subject of intensive research ever since. Thanks to a series of incredible circumstances and coincidences his body was perfectly preserved, in fact no damage had been done by predators, scavengers, or insects so it was imaginable that the body was covered by snow and/or ice soon after death, and the exposure to air and sunlight was only a brief period. His skin, hair, bones, and organs were cryopreserved in time, allowing archaeological researchers a phenomenal insight into human life more than 5000 years ago: he is therefore older than the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. After many years of research Ötzi is now resting in a cell at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Thousands of years divided us but I felt it was a duty to discover – or at least try to draft – what happened to him and somehow to do justice to him.

Despite all the exceptional scientific outcomes, when I saw him for the first time my mind started blowing with questions: who was this man? Where did he come from? What caused his death? Why was he ups to in the mountains? Why was someone chasing him? And why was he killed? Thousands of years divided us but I felt it was a duty to discover – or at least try to draft – what happened to him and somehow to do justice to him.

Everything started on a sunny September day in 1991, when two hikers were traversing a mountain pass in the Italian Otzal Alps and saw a brown, leathery shape protruding from the melting ice. Examining closely, they found a human body which they thought might be the victim of a past mountaineering accident. They could not imagine that they were standing on the crime scene of a 5,000-year-old murder victim.

The research started immediately but such an incredibly valuable find soon led to a jurisdictional argument about the ownership between the Austrian and Italian governments: an immediate border survey was done, finding Ötzi had been lying ninety-two meters within the Italian territory, and since then the mummy is resting in Bolzano.

The investigation started immediately and researchers hypothesized his story.

The Iceman was found in a strange position, lying face down with outstretched arms and he was perfectly intact, not dissected or embalmed during a funeral ritual. For this reason it is highly probable that he was murdered, maybe while he was fleeing some danger. Actually, a small, flint arrowhead was found in Ötzi’s left shoulder suggesting that there was someone following him. Moreover, the examination of his skull showed that he had suffered a serious injury right at the time of death. It is evident that the cause of death was a violent act of homicide. Researchers suggested that the day before Ötzi’s death, he was in a physical altercation at the village on the valley floor. This caused him to pack up and flee, climbing to the elevated pass where he was overcome by his attacker(s?) and shot with the arrow. An alternative hypothesis is that Ötzi was shot elsewhere, dragged by the arms, dumped in the gully with all his possessions, rolled over to remove the arrow, and then covered with ice and/or snow to hide the crime.

Unfortunately, this is going to remain a “cold case”, but the attention that it was able to rise amongst people has been an example as well as a demonstration that despite the thousands of years that divide us, human being feelings and empathy are still very strong.


Elena Settimini is a Doctoral researcher at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.


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