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Oetzi the Iceman

August 26, 2010

When the corpse of a 5,000-year-old human was uncovered nearly 20 years ago, archaeologists assumed the Iceman's death was anything but ceremonious. Researchers now think Oetzi may have received a proper Alpine burial.

A scientist examines Oetzi
Was Oetzi given a burial ceremony?Image: AP

A study released on Thursday suggests that Oetzi, a human specimen found in the Alps of South Tyrol nearly two decades ago, was not "frozen in time and place" following his death five millennia ago.

A team of Italian and American researchers now believe the Iceman actually received a proper burial ceremony atop a mountain pass, months after his death.

Oetzi was initially discovered in 1991 at the Tisenjoch Alpine pass along the border between Austria and Italy. Researchers theorized that the Iceman died of a battle-related arrow wound to the shoulder. It followed that Oetzi's personal belongings were frozen with him after his death in the upper reaches of the Alps.

Yet according to a new study published today in the journal Antiquity, those conclusions were not based on detailed mapping of the grave site.

A team of archaeologists, anthropologists and geo-specialists used spatial analysis to pinpoint the distribution of the man's belongings and the corpse itself - leading them to propose that his body was ceremoniously placed on elevated rock, some five meters (about 16 feet) away from his eventual discovery site.

"We concluded that he died in April, and in April the pass was probably full of snow," said Alessandro Vanzetti, an archaeologist at the La Sapienza University of Rome and one of the study's authors.

"He couldn't have died on the spot, furthermore, he didn't die on this stone, as had been reported."

Botanical evidence

The Iceman at the Archaeological Museum of Alto Adige
Researchers have not reached consensus on the circumstances of Oetzi's deathImage: AP

The team analyzed pollen ingested by Oetzi before his death and compared it with pollen found in the ice surrounding him, noting a "mismatch" between his death in April - which the team suspected occurred at a lower altitude - and his possible burial in August or September.

Researchers concluded that the Iceman died in a different location, and that his body was recovered.

"We think he was kept in some kind of cellar," Vanzetti told Deutsche Welle. Citing regional historical knowledge, the study noted that in Oetzi's day, the dead were customarily placed in farmsteads called "masi" before the winter snow and ice melted.

"It was used by people in Tyrol during the cold seasons," he said. "When one was dead, it was impossible to bury immediately, because the ground was frozen."

"He was a very important person, so people decided to bury him on the pass," Vanzetti added.

Luca Bondioli, co-author of the paper and an anthropologist with at the National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnology in Italy, described Oetzi as "an individual of the elite."

"The fact that we have a new interpretation of the discovery is important," he said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. The study noted that previous Oetzi research was based on the initial interpretation of the Iceman find and his belongings as "frozen in time and place."

Oetzi the Iceman in 1998
Scientists say the Iceman died from an arrow wound to the shoulderImage: AP

Distribution data

But the team's findings suggested that the Iceman's personal effects were carefully placed near his body during a burial ceremony, not simply scattered around him as he lay dying.

"There is a strong indication that the distribution can be explained by gravity and movement in the ice," Vanzetti said.

The archaeologist and his colleagues proposed that Oetzi and his grave goods were placed on an area of raised natural stone. Later on, according to the study, "cyclical thawing and freezing" caused the corpse and the burial items to shift.

The distribution was likely variable: lighter objects, such as hair and Oetzi's quiver, did not move in the same way as more weighty items, such as fur, leather and the body itself.

Lingering questions

Yet not all researchers in the field are prepared to accept the burial theory. Albert Zink, who was involved in efforts to map Oetzi's DNA and serves as head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman, said the team's conclusion was "not very convincing."

"There there are several things which I think are clearly in contrast to a burial," he told Deutsche Welle, citing the unusual placement of the bow, which had been stood upright, as well as the random distribution of Oetzi's belongings. Moreover, the Iceman was found with his right arm in a vertical position that Zink said would have been corrected before a burial.

Nevertheless, the new theory speaks to certain missing links in the Iceman story - including why Oetzi was found with unfinished weaponry. It could also explain why personal effects were discovered near his body, considering the likelihood that his attackers would confiscate the belongings of a felled opponent.

"Ultimately," the study read, "the impressive array of other objects is better explained as grave furnishings than as mountain equipment."

Author: Amanda Price
Editor: Cyrus Farivar