'Iceman': Prehistoric man, modern political fuss

March 26, 2000|By John R. Alden | By John R. Alden,Special to the Sun

"Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier," by Brenda Fowler. Random House. 320 pages. $25.

On Sept. 18, 1991, two hikers walking in the Alps found a frozen corpse in an ice-filled depression at the top of a pass between Austria and Italy. Astonishingly, the body was more than 5,000 years old. This was an extraordinary archeological find -- a Bronze Age European, flesh and organs intact, complete with his clothing and personal equipment.

In "Iceman," Brenda Fowler, an American journalist who was based in Vienna at the time of the discovery, sets out to tell two stories. The first, and by far the more interesting to an audience interested in the "life and times of a prehistoric man" mentioned in the book's subtitle, is about the archeological study of the Iceman himself. Where was he from, what was he doing in the mountains, and what do his clothes, tools, and physical remains reveal about the people living in Europe 3,300 years before the birth of Christ?

Unfortunately, Fowler devotes more attention to her second story, a recitation of the political maneuvers and academic infighting that surrounded the Iceman from the moment his body was retrieved.

Fowler's approach to these stories is chronological. A frozen body is discovered. It is hacked out of the ice along with its accompanying artifacts. People recognize that the body is ancient, and an Austrian archeologist from the University of Innsbruck, Konrad Spindler, gets control of the corpse.

Then, the scientific and political communities start to squabble. Where was the body found? (In Italy, it turns out.) Who will control access to the Iceman and his artifacts? (Spindler and a clique of his colleagues, who create an organization called the Research Institute for Alpine Prehistory to manage all Iceman-related research.) Who will pay for preserving the corpse (the public, of course), where will the Iceman be displayed (in the Italian province of South Tyrol), and how are the interested parties going to profit from their discoveries (any way they can)?

Scattered through Fowler's account of these arguments are the results of various biological, botanical and archeological studies. The details are fascinating. The Iceman had arthritis and had suffered repeated frostbite. He had 14 sets of tattoos, on his knees, ankles, and back, which may have been intended to relieve aches in the nearby arthritic joints.

He carried a little packet of charcoal, apparently tinder to help start a fire, and a quiver with 14 arrows, though only two had points. He wore two different kinds of shoes, a bearskin hat, and a plaited grass cape. His people had domesticated animals, but "not a shred of woven material turned up among any of the man's clothes or other possessions." His copper ax had a flaw in the handle that made archeologists question whether it was even a usable tool.

But such details are presented like clues in a mystery rather than in a systematic review. There is no careful weighing of alternate explanations, no coherent summing-up. Readers looking for a state-of-the-art account of the Iceman and his archeology will, unfortunately, just have to wait.

John R. Alden is an anthropological archeologist interested in the evolution of complex societies. He has worked in the Middle East, Central and South America and, closer to home, on several excavations in historic Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 03/26/00

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