The Iceman Reviewed

By Barfield, Lawrence | Antiquity, March 1994 | Go to article overview

The Iceman Reviewed


Barfield, Lawrence, Antiquity


Two-and-a-half years ago, in September 1991, a mummified body was discovered in a high snowfield on the Italian-Austrian border. It dates to about 3200 BC. Several sources and accounts, mostly in German, now exist of 'Otzi the Iceman', but there is no collected report in English. We invited Lawrence Barfield, himself a specialist on the region and period, and co-author of one of the first Otzi books, to review these accounts of a great prehistoric discovery.

The find of the century

The Iceman, discovered on 19 September 1991 on the Hauslabjoch in the Tyrolean Alps, is by now as famous an archaeological discovery as the tomb of Tutankhamun; and yet the English-speaking world still only knows about him through the medium of television (BBC Horizon production 1992) and popular or scientific journalism (especially Roberts 1993). This situation has been remedied now there is an English translation of Konrad Spindler's Der Mann im Eis. + Spindler's book appeared in German in September 1993 as the 'official' interim account of the find (Spindler 1993). It is one of more than half-a-dozen books available in German and Italian on the subject. These other books, one of which appeared already within two months of the discovery, have been written by an assortment of journalists and archaeologists. They include the report of the first Iceman conference held in June 1992 and also entitled Der Mann im Eis (Hopfel et al. 1992), which was creditably published by the University of Innsbruck on the anniversary of the discovery, and two general books (Barfield et al. 1992; Kreisch 1992). Two more volumes of the Innsbruck series are in preparation, one on the international mummy symposium held at Innsbruck in September 1993, and another of varied studies. Not in the Innsbruck series, but making a companion to it, are the several Iceman papers in the Jahrbuch des Romisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums 39 (1992|1993~), also circulating as a collected set of offprints bound together as a separate hardback book, Die Gletschermumie (Egg et al. 1993).

The translation of Spindler's new book goes a long way towards assuaging English-speaking thirst for clarification and information about the discovery, as well as setting the record straight on much media-generated myth and criticism. It is a fascinating and far-ranging narrative although, as Spindler writes, we are still only at the beginning of the research and thus much is to follow. However, what has been achieved by Spindler and the assembled international team of more than 140 experts already in under two years is considerable and impressive.

The name and reputation

The man who died in the Alps over 5000 years ago has already acquired many names. In the Anglo-Saxon press, 'Iceman' is still widely used, or the name of the original site attribution, to the Similaun glacier (Eismann in German is unfortunately associated with ice-cream). The official site name is Hauslabjoch (even though he was found within metres of the Tisensjoch pass, a name which has also been widely used). His Austrian nickname Otzi will certainly survive, at least in German-speaking countries where it can be correctly pronounced. Frozen Fritz is not to be recommended in the light of his current nationality, where Giovanni Gelato might be more appropriate.

In this review, I give this prehistoric person no name. Mostly he is just 'he'.

With some justification, he has been claimed as the most exciting find since Tutankhamun. Both were mummies; the similarity ends there. Tutankhamun was a find which was expected, an intact royal tomb sought for over several campaigns of excavation; the Iceman was an accidental find and a unique case of conservation which had figured in no archaeologist's wildest dreams.

The discovery

The first 95 pages of Spindler's book are a long and detailed, but nevertheless fascinating, account of the discovery: Herr and Frau Simons' walk on 19 September 1991 when they found the body; the gradual dawning of the importance and antiquity on visitors; the helicopter recovery; the first intervention by a professional prehistorian (Spindler); the ensuing media avalanche; the problems of ownership (for the find-spot was on the line of the Austrian-Italian border) and of organization which followed. …

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