Death of the Iceman
First shown: BBC Two 9.00pm Thursday 7 February 2002
In September 1991 two hikers made a sensational discovery - a frozen body high in the mountains, near the border between Austria and Italy. It turned out to be 5,300 years old, the oldest frozen mummy ever found. Named Ötzi the Iceman after the Ötztal area where he was found, he became a worldwide sensation.
The body was taken to Austria where scientists soon got to work on him. They analysed his bone density to find out how old he was (in his 40s, an advanced age for the time) and examined his wonderfully preserved belongings. The cause of his death remained a mystery. Now archaeologists are being joined by forensic scientists to investigate this unique case and new research has revealed a shocking answer.
Frozen in time
Scientists also wanted to know when he died so they examined the ice in which he'd been found. This contained pollen that they could identify as coming from autumn-flowering plants, so they concluded that Ötzi had died in the autumn. Together, this evidence implied that the Iceman might have got caught in a storm and died of hypothermia.
The Disaster Theory
The theory seemed to make sense, but it would not go unchallenged for long. In 1998, Ötzi was transferred to Italy since the body had actually been found just inside the Italian border. There the iceman was placed on display in a specially built museum in the town of Bolzano. To put the finishing touch to their display, the museum contacted forensic pathologist Peter Vanezis to reconstruct Ötzi's face, based on the shape of the skull. Vanezis normally works from the skull itself, but in this case, of course, that was impossible. So using the 3D CAT scan data and a rapid prototyping machine, the Austrian team created a detailed life-size replica of the Iceman's skull and gave this to Vanezis. He then used a laser to scan the skull into his facial reconstruction system. This measures the proportions of the skull and shapes a generic face to match. This allowed him to recreate Ötzi's face at last.
Re-examining the evidence
Also, evidence from the body and objects showed that the site had melted at least once and so things weren't necessarily in the same position. And finally, new examinations of the ribs showed that they hadn't been fractured before death - but been bent out of shape after death. Scientists seemed to be back to square one.
A Shocking Discovery
Now scientists can tell a new story of the Iceman's death. Ötzi was attacked and managed to flee. As he ran he was shot in the back with an arrow. He pulled out the arrow shaft but the head remained stuck in his shoulder. He reached the top of the mountains but was now exhausted and weakened from bleeding. He could go no further, lay down and died.
Although this story fits the latest results, there are still many unanswered questions. Scientists hope soon to conduct an autopsy to remove the arrowhead and only then will we be able to say for certain what killed Ötzi. The Iceman may still be hiding more secrets.