'Ice Man' likely warrior of status 4,000-year-old mummy touches off speculation.

October 03, 1991|By Boston Globe

His finely sewn leather outfit and panoply of weapons indicate that the Bronze Age man dug from a glacier this month was probably a warrior or other high-status person, Austrian archaeologists said this week as they stepped up their study of the find.

But the archaeologists at the University of Innsbruck say they may never solve the mystery of why the heavily armed "Ice Man" had ventured so high in the Tyrol mountains, and how he met death 4,000 years ago in an Alpine pass near the Italian border.

His weapons and well-made garments suggest elite status because "in these times, people who bore weapons had a special position in the military hierarchy," Gerhard Tomedi, a staff researcher at the university, said in a telephone interview.

In addition, the man's body was clean-shaven, including his eyebrows and pubic hair, and he bore tattoos on his back and feet. These, Tomedi said, were signs of high rank in many ancient cultures.

The discovery of the oldest, best-preserved body ever found from prehistoric Europe, with its potential to reveal much about life in the Bronze Age, has touched off a wave of excitement among scientists and the public. The Innsbruck archaeologists, led by professor Konrad Spindler, hope to reconstruct the man's final adventure.

They concede that their conclusions will be speculative, even after studying the body and its artifacts and drawing on what already is known about the culture of the time. The "Ice Man" could have been hunting for goats, Spindler said this week, or seeking deposits of the copper ore that metalworkers of the period mixed with tin to make bronze weapons and tools.

The mystery, Spindler said, is what led the man on a trek into the pass where violent weather and heavy snow sealed his doom.

The Innsbruck researchers surmise from his cold-weather outfit, which was waterproof and stuffed with hay for insulation, and from the body's state of preservation, that the man died in autumn. It is unlikely that he would have ventured to such heights during the winter, they said.

Tomedi, an assistant to Spindler, said he believes the man died of exhaustion, like many latter-day adventurers in the region. In the past few years, he said, the seasonal melting of the glacier that brought the Bronze Age man to light has also revealed bodies of more recent victims of accidents and exhaustion.

Relatively intact but less ancient bodies have been found in peat bogs and frozen tombs in Britain, Scandinavia and the Soviet Union, and scientists there have devised special techniques for examining them while preserving them. An international appeal for advice resulted in several expert opinions by telephone and fax, Tomedi said. The Innsbruck researchers decided to treat the corpse with a chemical to stop fungal growth and then refreeze it at 21 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

The university has appointed a team of medical and archaeological specialists to perform an autopsy seeking information about the man's diet, nutritional health, diseases and so forth, Tomedi said, but they cannot begin until the debate over long-term preservation is resolved. The studies will probably require two or three years, he said.

Because the university lacks adequate storage facilities, the archaeologists have sent the trove of artifacts found with the man to a museum laboratory in Mainz for preservation. These included a jacket, trousers and shoes made of stitched pieces of leather, a characteristic bronze-headed ax that allowed scientists to date the body, a wooden backpack, a leather sheath containing a flintstone and tinder, a stone-bladed knife, a wooden bow and a leather quiver containing 14 arrows, some with feathers still attached.

Tomedi said the research team now thinks the man came from what is now northern Italy at a time when people of the area lived in small villages on land cleared of thick forests and cultivated with the aid of the plow -- then a recent invention.

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