One of the coldest sights in the world of science awaited me at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, when I visited in March of 2000. It was the naked body of a man which lay on public display twisted in the anti-aesthetic of his death agony. He lay in a double cold: climatic and institutional. One was the natural cold of the ice crevice into which he fell and died five thousand years ago, the other the unnatural cold of the science which preserved his naked body on public view. From the first cold, death mercifully provided release. Who will ever release him from the second?
A different institution claims his body now, but the man's story is the same. The body was found on 19 September 1991 in the Oetzal Alps on the Austrian-Italian border. The man lived in the early Copper Age , about five thousand years ago. He was forty-five years old. In the midst of his everyday activities he fell into an ice crevice and died, the ice preserving his body, clothing, and equipment. Preserved in the museum, he is now known as Oetzie or the Iceman.
The scientific value of this find is clear, for normally archaeological digs uncover burial sites, the objects of which were specifically chosen and so give little insight into the everyday life of the time. Oetzie's belongings, by contrast, show us ordinary life. He was wearing a grass cloak made of the long leaves of an Alpine grass which protected him against rain and cold. He was wearing tough leather shoes lined with a net stuffed with insulating hay. He was equipped with a bow and arrow, an axe, a small flint dagger, and a backpack made from bent hazel rods.
Oetzie's tools, though interesting, are hardly novel, for the museum shelves of the world are loaded with such relics of the distant past. Nor does the world lack mummies. What is novel is the clothing, for like any sensible person walking in the Alps, Oetzie was fully clothed. The visitor to the museum can view his clothing in separate display cases, for they have been stripped from their wearer.
The chilling irony of Oetzie's case is this. Every introductory textbook of archaeology explains to the student that the first factor which distinguishes the fully human being from his anthropoid ancestors is the care for the dead. The religious feeling in the presence of death marks the emergence of recognizable humanity. What does this standard say about our own level of civilization, and that prestigious part of it which is the culture of science? It says we are pre-Neanderthals. Or that in the pursuit of knowledge we have lost our souls. Oetzie was roughly a contemporary of Gilgamesh. We are about 50,000 to 100,000 years behind him.
The Museum of Archaeology is proud of its preservation facilities. Oetzie is preserved at 18 degrees C under a lighting system which extracts all ultraviolet and infrared rays from the chamber. He is preserved in the attitude of his death, his face a mask of agony, his legs twisted, his right arm flung across his chest in a futile gesture to ward off calamity. But science has deprived him of the dignity which he gave himself in clothing, and that nature gave him in ice and darkness. He lies there on his stainless steel shelf like a slab of beef in the refrigerator. On the morning I visited, a Japanese woman standing at Oetzie's refrigerator window became sick and had to retire to the coffeeshop.
The museum guidebook repeats the phrase "as yet" - we have as yet to learn what he was doing in the mountains, we have as yet to learn how fell in the crevice - implying that in the future we will learn more of Oetzie's way of life and that therefore his continued preservation in cold clinical light is justified. Are these questions so difficult, or is science likely to answer them? Oetzie was walking in the mountains, wearing a backpack like you or me. He fell in the ice and died. If his mother was alive, she grieved for him. If he had a child, the child grieved.
The mystery is less Oetzie than ourselves. Why can't we return the poor man to the earth from which we dug him and let him rest in peace (as has been done in recent decades with American Indian corpses once held in North American museums)? Is it because we cannot recognize him as human like ourselves? And why is that? One hesitates to say it is because his skin, the color of wet brick, is darker than the average museum visitor's. And yet it must be some such difference that keeps us from recognizing his humanity. The wretched agony of Oetzie's death mask, suggestive of holocaust cadavers, is surely a trick of the long years under the ice. If his ghastly mask does not reflect his experience of death, what does it reflect? What it's like to be a museum display? Or is he trying to hold up a mirror in front of the visitor, to suggest to us what we look like when our soul is lost.
Rapallo, March 2000
Tokyo, February 2009