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The ‘Iceman’ cometh?
Categories: Books, Ethics, History, Science

Science left out cold in ‘Iceman’

By Leigh E. Rich

Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier
By Brenda Fowler
Random House
April 2000
296 pages

It is not every day a couple of hikers stumble across a five thousand year old corpse. In fact, it is hardly any day where such an occurrence is likely to happen. But it did, almost a decade ago, when Erika and Helmut Simon discovered what scientists would call the “find of the century.”

It was Thursday, September 19, 1991, somewhere along the Italian/Austrian border. The German passersby were well into their Alpine climb, having reached the 12,000-foot summit, and were eager to return to the bed-and-breakfast in the valley below. Navigating through the slushy terrain in the afternoon sun, the Simons spotted “something dark against the white snow.” They had found the “iceman”—the frozen remains of a man who lived more than five millennia ago.

The discovery of this archaeological “treasure trove” and the events that followed are critically recounted by author Brenda Fowler in Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier. Unlike other books and articles written about this mummy, however, Fowler’s Iceman places the scientists in the spotlight. From the recovery of the corpse to its scientific scrutiny and conservation, she deftly questions the place of politics and economics in the rediscovery of human history.

Studying the iceman as a scientific endeavor was botched from the beginning. The book’s first chapter is the modern archaeologist’s nightmare as Fowler explains the bureaucratic confusion over what to do with a corpse splayed across an international border. Far from delicate images of men with toothbrushes and trowels, the iceman was recovered from the mountaintop with an ice pick and a ski pole—not by a team of archaeologists but by an Austrian gendarme, an Alpine guide, a university professor, a reporter and their helicopter pilot.

“To test if he could pop the whole corpse out of the ice in one tug, [the gendarme] hooked the body on the pick and raised the torso out of the slushy water underneath. The stiff torso bounced up and down on the end of the pick, but the lower end was still stuck in the ice. He let the body slap back into the slush and ice. This was going to be harder than he imagined. As the [gendarme and the professor] worked, they occasionally stepped right on the corpse’s back.”

At the time, few were aware of the possible antiquity of the body, and the crude excavation would later cause numerous insurmountable challenges to the scientists who came to study the iceman, among them Dr. Konrad Spindler, chair of Pre- and Early History at the University of Innsbruck, and Dr. Werner Platzer, a renowned professor and head of the university’s anatomy department. Artifacts frozen in the ground with the iceman were removed, broken and shifted from their original resting places; pieces of his leather clothing and grass mat were destroyed and left to disintegrate on the icy ground; and the corpse itself was man-handled to such an extent that any data about the iceman’s life and death may never be known.

“The helicopter [with the corpse] flew back to Vent, where … the local undertaker was not disappointed. He had selected a modest pine coffin for this unidentified soul, but when he and Henn [the professor present at removal] tried to place the body inside, a small problem arose. The arms were still frozen straight out to the right, over the sides of the coffin. … Without hesitation, the men forced the arms down into the coffin and closed the lid.”

The iceman eventually came under Spindler and Platzer’s care at the university, where the latter developed an elaborate method of preserving the corpse and the former a rigid and commercially profitable system for studying it. Along with other interested academicians, research on how Ötzi—as he was later known—lived, what he ate, what he was doing high in the Alps, and how he died continued intensely for more than seven years. Monies earned from “official” publications about Ötzi, regulated by Spindler and the university, went directly back into the costly endeavor, but as Fowler points out, at a high price for science. Flagrantly abusing scientific and archaeological methods, Spindler published his hypothesis about the iceman’s death in 1993. Der Mann im Eis, while an official academic publication, tells the unproven tale of Ötzi’s narrow escape from a catastrophe in his village: After “a violent confrontation” where he sustained fractures to his ribs, he climbed high into the Alps to repair his broken weapons. In his weakness and the cold, Ötzi stumbled to the ground and fell asleep “from which he was to awaken no more.”

Fowler lays out a convincing argument demonstrating that, first, Spindler’s story is nothing but conjecture, but more importantly, that little of Ötzi’s life and our past can be known from a solitary, contextually useless find. In the end, all we know for sure was what he ate for the last time.

Fowler’s Iceman proves how hype and profit oft times prevail over the sanctity of science. In an attempt to proceed cautiously with the iceman find until better data recovery techniques could be developed, Spindler and the others appear more like mad men toward the end of the book, rather than well-respected experts in their fields. In a conference about Ötzi in 1996, for example, Platzer emphasized “how little of the Iceman had been removed [for tissue sampling]. ‘Only one gram, one gram,’ he said again and again.” Yet “Platzer barely mentioned what research had come out of all of this sample taking or who had received what samples.”

In a well-written reminder that science is a “sloppy beast” of politics, economics and history, Fowler raises issues about what should be done with Ötzi and others like him, especially when such finds tell us so little. And in an era where the selling of stories to fund research and the proliferation of the “mummy market” exists, Fowler asks, “Was the gaze of a scientist more reverent than that of the public?”

Thus, the moral of the story follows that, when having stumbled across anything that even remotely appears ancient, it is every person’s duty, as a moral and enlightened citizen, to not touch anything and find the nearest archaeologist. But what are the archaeologist’s obligations? 

Rich, L. E. (2000, May 7). Science left out cold in ‘Iceman.’ [Review of the book Iceman: Uncovering the life and times of a prehistoric man Found in an Alpine Glacier by Brenda Fowler.] Rocky Mountain News.

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