Iceman May Have Been Buried in a Ceremony

Researchers have long thought that Ötzi, the 5000-year-old Iceman found in the Alps in 1991, died wounded and alone, perhaps the victim of a raging blizzard. But a provocative new paper tells a radically different story. The first comprehensive map of Ötzi’s body and belongings suggests he was ceremoniously buried by his fellows in the warm summer months.

Previous studies of Ötzi focused on his corpse rather than the entire death scene. His body, found on the Austrian-Italian border by two German hikers, had been pierced by an arrowhead in the shoulder. And the goods he carried—a copper axe, dagger, quiver, backpack, birch-bark container, and an unfinished bow—lay scattered around him. Previous analyses assumed that he discarded these as he succumbed to death from his wounds and the harsh winter.

But the new study—published today in Antiquity Journal—comes to a different conclusion. Led by archaeologist Alessandro Vanzetti of the University of Rome, La Sapienza, the researchers say that Ötzi’s body and artifacts were in fact carefully placed on a stone platform 5 meters away from where the body was later found. Among the larger artifacts, only the backpack frame, trapped against the rock, remained in place. Human and animal hair on the platform—which is uphill from the body’s final resting place—are “inconsistent with the disaster theory that the Iceman died where he was found,” the authors write. If Ötzi had lain down on the rock with his goods close about him, his possessions would not have been so widely scattered, they say. And an unfinished bow is an odd thing for a lone man to carry over a mountain pass.

The team used a technique called Spatial Point Pattern Analysis to map precisely the location of each of the many artifacts and biological materials. Previous researchers focused instead on analyzing the corpse, which was in unusually good condition and provided important data on Ötzi’s diet, health, and wounds. The new analysis of the area around the corpse allowed the team to model the movement of the materials over time, given the thawing and freezing of ice over millennia. Based on that modeling, the team concluded that the artifacts were in fact grave goods carefully placed around the corpse, rather than randomly discarded by the dying man.  

The team also notes that there is a mismatch between the likely time of death—April, when he had his last meal—and the season in which he ended up on the mountain, which was likely in August or September based on pollen found in the ice around the body. They suggest that the body was preserved until the summer months, a longtime tradition in some Alpine communities where the ground can remain frozen until late in the season. A grass mat found near the body may have been part of a funeral shroud, and the grave goods a sign of his status as a revered warrior. Rather than the scene of a tragic and lonely death, the iceman’s burial may have been a cathartic communal event.

The findings help explain a few holes in previous studies, says Frank Rühli, head of the Swiss mummy project at the University of Zurich. For example, Ötzi’s wound should have prevented him from walking up the mountain.

But not everyone is convinced. Botanist Klaus Oeggl of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, who has studied the body and artifacts closely, praises the paper for focusing on the entire assemblage rather than just the body, but he says that proving the authors' conclusions will require new field work. And Albert Zink, who directs the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bolzano in Italy, says the study fails to take into account inconvenient details, such as the fact that the bow was upright, an unusual position for a burial. He also sees no evidence that the dead body was transported.  

As the debate continues, it seems that after 5000 years, Ötzi is still a target for slings and arrows.