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Multimedia: A Most Mysterious Death Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Paul G. Bahn

[image] Researchers now classify the Iceman's death as "suspicious." (Discovery Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

The latest documentary on 5,300-year-old Ötzi, the Italian "Iceman," focuses on the recent discovery of an object lodged in his upper left shoulder. The film (Ultimate Guide: Iceman, airing on the Discovery Channel March 25, 9:00 p.m. EST) features the now-standard combination of footage showing scientists at work and an actor impersonating the living Ötzi.

While nobody has examined the object itself, which is still embedded in Ötzi's body, it certainly looks like a flint arrowhead in the CT-scan footage shown. A hole in the shoulder-blade is reckoned to be an entry wound.

It is certainly possible that the arrowhead caused the man's death, but there are distinct problems with the theory, not least the total absence of an arrowshaft, which goes unmentioned in the program. Since Ötzi's own arrows were beautifully preserved, wouldn't the shaft of one that entered his body immediately before death have survived as well? That alone tends to suggest an old wound rather than a cause of death.

The film also strays far too easily into melodramatic speculation. The possibility that an arrowhead in the shoulder could have been accidental--a hunting mishap, perhaps--is not even considered. Instead we are presented with Ötzi as a deliberate murder victim, with re-enactments of a "hitman" creeping up behind him and firing the fatal shot. The filmmakers even consider a theory from anthropologist Johan Reinhard, known for his discoveries of mummified Inka children on Andean mountain peaks, that Ötzi was perhaps a person of high status who was deliberately sacrificed and placed upon a "sacred" mountain.

Despite these shortcomings and fantasies, however, the film does contain some nuggets of important new information, such as the body's elevated temperature at death (an indication of hypothermia). Also, pollen he had inhaled six hours before death (as calculated from its position in his innards) points to his having died not in the fall, as was originally thought, but probably in June. Finally, the film contains an interesting experiment in which replicas of Ötzi's garments are worn by an anthropologist (also outfitted with reproductions of the Iceman's equipment), who follows sheep up to the mountain pastures, trudging through snow much as Ötzi must have done. The results are intriguing. The coat proved warm and the great bow an invaluable climbing pole. Even the copper ax was useful for climbing in snow. Ötzi's shoes, however, turned out to be a disaster--fragile, with no traction in snow, and no resistance to water. Why, amid such beautifully designed clothing and equipment, was he wearing such useless footwear?

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America