The Iceman as a Burial

By Vanzetti, A.; Vidale, M. et al. | Antiquity, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Iceman as a Burial


Vanzetti, A., Vidale, M., Gallinaro, M., Frayer, D. W., Bondioli, L., Antiquity


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Introduction

In September 1991, the iceman, a well-preserved 5000 year-old human corpse, was found on the partially glaciated Tisenjoch pass in the Tyrolean Alps (Figure 1). The common interpretation is that he died with his belongings on the pass of the partially melted Similaun glacier (Hopfel et al. 1992; Barfield 1994; Spindler 1994; Spindler et al. 1995, 1996; Bortenschlager & Oeggl 2000; Nerlich et al. 2003; Pernter et al. 2007; Lippert et al. 2007). In this so-called 'disaster' theory, the mortally wounded man froze at a high altitude with his tools and personal items, succumbing to an arrow point deeply embedded in his left shoulder while escaping from a tribal clash. Interestingly, such a demanding reconstruction has never been supported by the publication of a detailed spatial analysis of the discovery scene. Here, we present a point pattern analysis based on a detailed map of the items on record and show that a different interpretation is more probable. The original position of the body was possibly on a modified natural stone platform, 0.8m above and 5.0m away from the final discovery spot. We propose that this platform served as the burial place of the iceman and his grave goods. Our plots of the artefact scatter suggest the burial goods and body fell from here and were later repositioned downslope by gravity, suspended in semi-melted ice and water during warm episodes. This reconstruction is consistent with previous discoveries and the analytical results of the body's state of conservation. It also accounts for the contrast between botanical evidence in his gut, placing his death at a lower altitude in early/mid spring, and environmental and botanical evidence on the Tisenjoch suggesting a burial in late summer/early autumn.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Mapping the find area

The local geomorphology is crucial to evaluate post-depositional movements. The findspot lies in a shallow depression between two low ridges (at the time of the discovery filled with ice) discharging towards the north-east (Figure 2). The depression is approximately 17.50m long and 5.0m wide with a maximum depth of 1.25-1.50m (bottom: 3212.89m asl; ridges at 3214.25-3214.50m asl). The elevation of the boulder on which the iceman rested is about 3213.6m asl. A small platform (outlined in white on Figure 3), about 2.2 x 1.0m, is located to the south-west over the southern ridge. It is bounded by two parallel protruding stones and has a slightly higher rock at its north-eastern end facing the basin. This platform is 0.8m above and 5.0m west from the location of the corpse and is connected to the nearby depression through a natural fissure, running between this rock and the main bedrock ridges to the east.

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After their accidental discovery during 19-23 September 1991 (Egg et al. 1993), the body and some large objects scattered on the surface were haphazardly collected by visitors. At this time it was still believed that the corpse was a modern casualty and no precise spatial information was recorded. The position of the body and the items had to be reconstructed from photographs and personal recollections (Egg et al. 1993). From 3-5 October 1991 a field campaign was led by an archaeological team from Innsbruck University and directed by A. Lippert (1992). As the weather was bad, only part of the ice surrounding the body had melted and only a few items were recovered. Spatial information was limited but included a general plan.

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A second field campaign was carried out from 4-24 August 1992 by a joint team from Innsbruck University and archaeologists from Bozen (Bolzano), directed by A. Lippert and B. Bagolini (Bagolini et al. 1995). This expedition aimed to recover completely the remaining artefacts and take a comprehensive range of samples. At this time the ice sheet had thawed and a detailed plan was made. …

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