BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Science & Nature: TV & Radio Follow-upScience & Nature
Science & Nature: TV and Radio Follow-up

BBC Homepage

In TV & Radio

Contact Us

You are here: BBC > Science & Nature > TV & Radio Follow-up > Horizon

Death of the Iceman
First shown: BBC Two 9.00pm Thursday 7 February 2002

Oetzi in a 1991 photo Click for programme summary
View Otzi's artefacts in the Iceman gallery
Jump to the Science message board
Back to homepage

NARRATOR (DILLY BARLOW): Kept frozen in a specially built chamber is one of the most extraordinary finds in modern archaeology. It's the body of a man who died more than five thousand years ago. Now a gruesome discovery has turned this archaeological sensation into a murder investigation.

NARRATOR: For over five thousand years this body lay entombed in a glacier. Now it's kept under tighter security. The man in charge of the preservation of the body is pathologist Eduard Egarter Vigl.

DR EDUARD EGARTER VIGL (Bolzano General Hospital): It's a sensation, the oldest frozen mummy in the world.

NARRATOR: Vigl's task is to ensure the Iceman stays as fresh as the day it was found. Every month he performs his examination of the body, checking for any signs of deterioration. To stop the body drying out he sprays it with sterilised water which freezes into a shiny film of ice, but in June 2001 he did more than just his routine conservation work. He decided to X-ray the body and what he found stunned him.

EDUARD EGARTER VIGL: It all flashed through my head and I thought this can't be true.

NARRATOR: Vigl had made the most extraordinary discovery in the history of the Iceman. He had found that the Iceman contained a secret more gruesome than anyone had imagined. It was a revelation that would finally end a mystery that had begun a decade earlier.

In September 1991 two German hikers, Erika and Helmut Simon, were out walking in the Austrian Alps when they found something very disturbing.

ERIKA SIMON: My husband walked in front of me a bit and then suddenly he stopped and said look at what's lying there and I said oh, it's a body. Then my husband took a photograph, just one, the last we had left in the camera.

NARRATOR: Near the Austrian and Italian border 3,200m high in the Alps lay the half-naked body of a man. Chest down, his face was buried in the ice.

HELMUT SIMON: We thought it was a mountain climber or a skier who'd had an accident perhaps 10 years previously or perhaps two years previously.

NARRATOR: A recovery team was sent to the site. As they freed the corpse they noticed strange lines on the man's body, possibly branding or whip marks. There was a large wound on the man's head. At first they wondered whether they were dealing with a murder victim, but there was something strange. Lying in the melt water around the corpse were some ancient looking objects: bits of fur and leather, a flint dagger. They bundled these up with the corpse and the whole lot was taken to the Forensic Medical Institute in Innsbruck. Because of the mysterious objects a local archaeologist, Konrad Spindler, was invited to examine the find.

PROF KONRAD SPINDLER (University of Innsbruck): This was the first view that I ever had of the body. It was naked and had a strongly dried out skin. It was the articles found with the mummy which made it relatively simple to date the find.

NARRATOR: Spindler began to suspect that the corpse might be incredibly old, even thousands of years old. Carbon dating confirmed it. The body was 5,300 years old. He dated from the Stone Age, the oldest frozen body ever discovered. This was no longer a routine forensic case. It was an archaeological marvel. Every scientist who saw the Iceman was amazed.

PROF HORST SEIDLER (University of Vienna): Oh my, my, my first meeting with the Iceman was something spectacular.

DR WOLFGANG RECHEIS (University Hospital, Innsbruck): He looked like, like a doll. This was a small man dried out, the skin is, looks like leather.

HORST SEIDLER: To see that wonderful preserved mummy, this is one of your European ancestors.

WOLFGANG RECHEIS: It was very impressive to keep in mind that this body was 5,300 and something years old.

NARRATOR: Everyone wanted to work on the new discovery. Analysis of his bones revealed his age. he was in his 40s, quite old for his time, and he was even given a name: Ötzi, after the Ötztal region where he was found. The Iceman was becoming a personality.

HORST SEIDLER: His face was so strange, you know. I never saw a mummy with such a strong expression. The eyes are open and each detail is preserved. In a way the Iceman is speaking to you.

NARRATOR: But it wasn't just the body. His possessions were just as spectacular.

PROF MARKUS EGG (Museum of Germanic History, Mainz): The find was absolutely unique for an archaeologist. One saw things here which one could only dare to dream about.

NARRATOR: For the first time they had a Stone Age man with his complete clothes and equipment. He had a copper axe, the only complete Neolithic axe ever found, and a bow almost two metres long, a quiver packed full of arrows and he had a flint knife tucked inside a small pouch.

MARCUS EGG: We obtained a view of everyday life which is absolutely unique and will probably remain so since it's very unlikely that we'll ever find something like this again.

NARRATOR: They even had an idea of what he'd done for a living. He had warm clothes perfectly suited for life in the Alps and his grass cloak resembled those worn by herdsmen until the last century, so he might well have been a shepherd. They had worked out many details of Ötzi's life, but one question remained unanswered: how had he ended up dead in the ice 3,200m high in the Alps? The mystery of Ötzi's death had begun.

For the archaeologist heading the research the obvious place to start the investigation was the scene of death. He believed the scene had remained frozen in the ice since Ötzi's death, unchanged for thousands of years. If this was true it should offer a window onto the events of that fateful day, so Konrad Spindler collected every photograph that had been taken at the site to try and piece together how Ötzi died.

KONRAD SPINDLER: It's clear that this man has stumbled and fallen onto these rocks. His cap has fallen off and he's lying there naked. This picture is very important because it shows the Iceman's equipment as it was found. You can see the upper end of the bow which he has deliberately placed against the rocks. Slightly above, the Iceman has lain his axe with its wooden handle and metal blade.

NARRATOR: Spindler worked out the layout of the whole site. Ötzi was found in a long, narrow gully. On a rock nearby was his axe and his bow. In another part of the gully lay his quiver. To Spindler the scene of death showed that Ötzi had carefully laid his belongings around him before lying down to rest.

KONRAD SPINDLER: The layout of the site shows very clearly that he had collapsed. His equipment is lying around him exactly where he had placed it before he died. The picture has remained unchanged for the last five thousand years.

NARRATOR: It was clear to Spindler that Ötzi must have been walking in the Alps, had stopped to rest and then died, but the actual cause of his death remained a mystery. Then inside the ice, which they thought had entombed the whole scene for thousands of years, scientists found a vital clue. It told them when Ötzi had died. The clue was pollen.

Every plant releases its own unique type of pollen and different plants release their pollen at different times of year, so pollen acts as a fingerprint for each season. If the ice had formed immediately after Ötzi's death then any pollen trapped inside it would tell the scientists the season when the Iceman died; and that seemed to be the case. As they analysed each grain they discovered that all the pollen came from plants that flower in one season.

It seemed Ötzi had died in the autumn. At this time of year conditions in the Alps can become notoriously harsh. This gave scientists their first theory to explain the Iceman's death. Perhaps, like so many others, Ötzi was caught in a storm and died of hypothermia.

HORST SEIDLER: We are convinced that he laid down on, on that pass and froze to death.

NARRATOR: It seemed as though Ötzi was just another victim of the weather, but the investigation was far from over. The next man to investigate Ötzi was Wolfgang Recheis, an expert in 3D X-ray imaging. His job was to look inside the Iceman. He was part of a team that would begin to suspect that Ötzi's death was no accident.

WOLFGANG RECHEIS: It was only a few weeks after I started working here, I was really a novice, when the Iceman was brought to our CAT scanner. This is a kind of X-ray examination where you get informations of all three special dimensions.

NARRATOR: The scans enabled them to see inside the Iceman in incredible detail. They could even see his brain.

WOLFGANG RECHEIS: When you look at three-dimensional reconstructions on screen you can clearly see the brain, you can clearly see how much the brain is shrunken due to the five thousand years lying in a glacier. It looks like a dried raisin and, but the brain is there, but it has only half the size it would be in living conditions.

We also made an examination of his feet and on the X-ray image of the left foot we saw a little black spot and we think this is a result of frostbite the Iceman suffered from on his little left toe.

NARRATOR: So far everything fitted with the theory that Ötzi had died from hypothermia, but then they examined the chest X-rays. On one side the ribs were severely distorted. It looked like they might have been fractured. This seemed to indicate that Ötzi had suffered a major injury shortly before death. It didn't take long for the news to reach the head of the Ötzi investigation, Konrad Spindler. He became convinced that the fractured ribs were the vital clue to what had really happened in Ötzi's final hours.

KONRAD SPINDLER: This made it clear to me that he'd been in a violent situation near the time of his death. He'd been injured and this injury was to his ribs.

NARRATOR: Using all the pieces of evidence, Spindler put together a new story of Ötzi's last days, more dramatic and more violent than the hypothermia theory.

KONRAD SPINDLER: I believe that the Iceman must have been a shepherd. It was autumn. he gathered his animals to return to his home village. At that moment some kind of conflict arose. Perhaps an enemy group attacked his village. He appears to have been injured, but managed to escape and fled high up into the mountains. He had obviously used his last strength on his final day to climb up as high as he could. In the last minutes of his life he must have been very weak from his injuries.

He was very tired. He fought against sleep, but it eventually overwhelmed him. He fell asleep and died of hypothermia. Doctors say that this is a painless death.

NARRATOR: Spindler christened this scenario the disaster theory. It seemed to fit all the evidence and gave a plausible account of Ötzi's death, but a chain of events was about to unfold that would challenge the disaster theory and it started with Ötzi going home.

In 1998 Ötzi began a journey across the Alps. Ötzi had been discovered a few metres inside the Italian border and the Italians had demanded his return. Escorted by armed guard the body was taken to Bolzano, a town in Northern Italy. This museum would be Ötzi's final resting place. For the first time Ötzi would be put on view, the centrepiece of an exhibition. To add the finishing touch to the display they wanted to bring him to life, so they turned to one of the few people with the expertise to rebuild a five thousand year old face.

Peter Vanezis is used to looking at death. As one of the world's leading forensic pathologists he works closely with the police to solve murder cases. In particularly gruesome cases the victim can be impossible to identify.

PROF PETER VANEZIS (Forensic Pathologist): When we're stuck in this situation and the skull is present, one of the things that we can try is to put a face back on the skull if we're dealing with a mutilated or skeletalised body.

NARRATOR: Vanezis wanted to apply modern forensic techniques to bring Ötzi back from the past. First they created a perfect replica of Ötzi's skull using the 3D X-ray data. This was then scanned into the computer using a laser.

PETER VANEZIS: Once you've got this image in the, in the computer you can then select a face which anthropologically matches the skull. By that I mean someone who's of approximately the same age, race, sex and so on.

NARRATOR: The computer then stretched the selected face over Ötzi's skull to reveal the shape of his face.

PETER VANEZIS: Ötzi had delicate features. He had fairly flat cheekbones, but a slightly protruding chin and a fairly small forehead. Because we had information in his case about hair and we knew he had some beard hair, we then added that on.

NARRATOR: Finally, the face of Ötzi came to light. Here was a man that lived over 5,000 years ago, long before the pyramids, older than Stonehenge.

It was then that Vanezis's background as a police forensic pathologist got the better of him. he couldn't resist looking further into Ötzi's death. Although the disaster theory appeared to solve the mystery, Vanezis felt it relied too much on assumption and not enough on hard evidence.

PETER VANEZIS: Whilst there have, there have been some absolutely excellent studies carried out on Ötzi I think there also, there's also been some speculation which has been unwarranted really and this is particularly in relation to how he died.

NARRATOR: So Vanezis decided to apply police forensic methods to the mystery of Ötzi's death.

PETER VANEZIS: An archaeologist would look at different things, we would look at different things, and a forensic pathologist would start from the point of view of what normally happens in a criminal investigation. A body is found, it is found at a, a scene. You then have to look at the body itself, do an external and an internal examination, see if you can find any injuries, any other contributing factors that could have led to his death.

NARRATOR: In September 2000 Vanezis got his chance to examine Ötzi. The Iceman was carefully defrosted for scientific research. it was a perfect opportunity for him to examine the body for clues to Ötzi's death.

PETER VANEZIS: He looked to me like an ordinary body that had been maybe around for six months to a year. Of course he was 5,300 years old and that's what made it awesome to actually deal with a body that looks so fresh in that respect, but yet be so much in a time-warp.

NARRATOR: Vanezis checked the body for any external marks that might explain Ötzi's death. He looked for wounds and for signs of disease, but the examination was inconclusive.

PETER VANEZIS: There was nothing obvious from this external examination as to what could have caused his death. There was no obvious trauma or anything like that.

NARRATOR: With the body apparently offering no clues, to find out what killed Ötzi, Vanezis decided to examine each assumption behind the disaster theory. He started with the time of death.

PETER VANEZIS: In a forensic investigation time of death is obviously important in many cases, particularly when a body is found and you don't know how long that body's been there.

NARRATOR: The disaster theory claimed that Ötzi had died in autumn because of the pollen frozen in the ice surrounding the body, but this was based on the assumption that the ice had formed straight after the Iceman's death. Botanist Klaus Oeggl thought otherwise.

PROF KLAUS OEGGL (Institute of Botany, Innsbruck): Well the ice could be formed later, years, or hundred years later than the body was deposited, so this doesn't tell us very much about the time when the Iceman died.

NARRATOR: To be sure of the season of death Klaus Oeggl needed pollen that could only have been deposited at the same time Ötzi died. There was just one place to look: inside Ötzi himself. Pollen sometimes settles on food, so it might have been preserved as part of Ötzi's last meal.

KLAUS OEGGL: Oh I got an amazing small amount of sample. It had a weight of 40mg and to imagine the size it's like the size of, of the nail, the fingernail of the small finger.

NARRATOR: Oeggl meticulously examined the samples. He could make out the remains of ground wheat, meat fibres and plant material. It seemed Ötzi's final meal had been bread with dried meat and vegetables. Next Oeggl turned up the magnification to look for pollen mixed in with the food. He found masses of pollen from one tree: the hop hornbeam, a tree that still survives in the valleys below the Alps.

KLAUS OEGGL: The really surprising thing was that the pollen was fresh in the food residues and this means that the pollen was consumed immediately after the flowering of the plant.

NARRATOR: This at last gave Oeggl the clue to when the Iceman had died because the hop hornbeam tree only flowers at one time of year.

KLAUS OEGGL: This tree flowers in-between March and June in this area which means that the Iceman died in spring and not in autumn, as it was presumed before.

NARRATOR: This was the first setback for the disaster theory. One of its key assumptions, the time of death, was wrong. Vanezis then turned the investigation to the scene of discovery.

PETER VANEZIS: One of the most important parts of the forensic investigation is to assess the position of the body and the various artefacts surrounding it.

NARRATOR: Another key assumption of the disaster theory was that the Iceman had been frozen in a layer of ice until his discovery, with the scene remaining completely unchanged for thousands of years; but new evidence would emerge to show that this assumption simply could not be true.

It all began with the objects found with Ötzi. Amongst the many items found at the site was a quiver packed with arrows. Thirteen of these were the same length, but one of the arrows was shorter than the others. At the time of Ötzi's discovery no one thought much about it, but as Oeggl was sorting through fragments of grass and fibre that had been found several metres from the quiver he found some pieces of wood which intrigued him. They looked as if they might be from the mysterious broken arrow.

KLAUS OEGGL: So first I tried with two pieces to fit them together and I had to try to do it in different ways. Suddenly I recognised that they really fit together. When they fitted it was a perfect fit.

NARRATOR: Oeggl had found the missing piece, but it had been lying four metres away from the rest of the arrow.

KLAUS OEGGL: A surprising thing of these splinters were that they were scattered all over the gully, so this tells us that these pieces of wood must have been moved out of the quiver.

NARRATOR: It was then that Oeggl realised the significance of the find. If something had moved the bits of wood then the theory that the site had lain frozen in time had to be wrong. Now knowing that the discovery site had been disturbed Vanezis turned his forensic investigation to the body itself. Had it moved as well?

PETER VANEZIS: I believe the archaeologists feels that Ötzi died in the position in which he was discovered. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this whatsoever.

NARRATOR: Vanezis's examination of the body told a different story. Something on the back of Ötzi's head seemed to suggest that he had once lain on his back.

PETER VANEZIS: There was a mark on the back of the head which looked very much like a pressure mark and where a pressure mark would be if the head was, was laying on something hard.

NARRATOR: And yet he had been found lying on his front.

PETER VANEZIS: There's also the ear as well. One of his ears was bent over again indicating that there could have been some pressure on that side of the face, so he's in different positions in a completely different position to the one in which he was actually found.

NARRATOR: For Vanezis this led to an inescapable conclusion: the site had definitely been disturbed. Both the objects and body had moved, but how could this have happened? The most plausible explanation is that at least once in the thousands of years since Ötzi died the ice must have melted. It meant Ötzi would have floated in water and drifted into different positions. The disaster theory now hung on just one remaining piece of evidence: the rib fractures which the Austrian team had found, but Vanezis again had his doubts.

PETER VANEZIS: They thought at first that he'd had fractured ribs, therefore one could possibly say well he's had some kind of really severe beating, but there's no real good evidence for this.

NARRATION: When Vanezis looked closely he saw something different.

PETER VANEZIS: That side of the chest seems to be deformed in a uniform kind of way and over a wide area which does not fit in with somebody being beaten up. They're more consistent with some pressure being put on the chest in some way after death.

NARRATOR: The ribs had not been broken, but bent out of shape, as if something had been pressing down on Ötzi for thousands of years after his death. His ribs must have been damaged simply by the pressure of the ice. All the evidence for the disaster theory had collapsed: Ötzi had died in spring, not autumn; the scene of death had been disturbed and there was no sign of a violent injury.

PETER VANEZIS: The disaster theory really had no scientific grounding for it. That's just pure speculation.

NARRATOR: The disaster theory was in tatters. It was time to reopen the investigation

And so it was that in June 2001 Eduard Egarter Vigl decided to X-ray the Iceman again. With the cause of death a mystery once more he was looking for any clues that might have been missed before. As soon as they were ready the X-rays of Ötzi were given to the Head of Radiology at Bolzarno Hospital, Dr Paul Gostner. His experienced eye immediately spotted something unusual.

DR PAUL GOSTNER (Bolzano General Hospital): I noticed a shadow, this foreign body and I said to my assistant look up there, that looks like something completely different and that cannot be bone.

EDUARD EGARTER VIGL: It was then in the afternoon. I remember it very well. I was sitting in this room here at about 4pm when Dr Gostner was at the door with the X-ray pictures in his hand. He said look at this, look at this, there's a shadow up on the side near the shoulder. We were very amazed at this find and I asked him what do you think it could be?

NARRATOR: To find out what the object was Gostner used the CAT scan data to examine its density. Different materials have different densities, so this should tell him what the foreign body was made of. As he carefully moved the cursor down the density increased dramatically. The result was clear: the object was far denser than bone. It was the same as flint. At last they knew what the strange object was.

EDUARD EGARTER VIGL: It was very clear to both of us what we were dealing with. We had this unmistakable X-ray with a shadow and we had its density which meant the only explanation was that it was from an arrow.

NARRATOR: For the Austrian team who had first examined Ötzi it was a huge embarrassment. Despite years of research they'd missed an obvious cause of death.

HORST SEIDLER: They showed me at the very first time the new X-rays and I really can tell you that has been the shock of my life.

WOLFGANG RECHEIS: I thought ... we probably have overseen this amazing and very important little thing in his body.

HORST SEIDLER: Because it was so clear. There was the arrow head.

NARRATOR: Had the arrow really been there all along? To find out Wolfgang Recheis went back to the CAT scans they'd performed in 1994 to have another look.

WOLFGANG RECHEIS: I loaded immediately the data set into my workstation and played around with some image processing algorithms to make if there's really an arrow and certainly I found out that OK, you can clearly see an arrow in his left shoulder.

NARRATOR: On the 3D CAT scan the arrow was clear to see. Now, with the very data they had overlooked for 10 years, the team at Innsbruck created a perfect replica of the arrowhead.

WOLFGANG RECHEIS: So this is an accurate model of the arrow head. This is real size and it is very convincing for me there is no doubt that Ötzi was hit by an arrow.

NARRATOR: But was this arrow really the cause of death? Vanezis was cautious about assuming a direct link.

PETER VANEZIS: We don't know really whether we're dealing with an arrow wound that could be months old or whether we're dealing with one that's killed him.

NARRATOR: To answer that question Vigl went to examine the body.

EDUARD EGARTER VIGL: We then turned the Iceman over on his stomach. We waited a little until the first 3-4mm of the surface of the Iceman thawed out, laying our hands on the body with our gloves so the warmth of our hands would speed up the thawing process.

NARRATOR: As the ice melted away there on the shoulder directly in line with the arrow was a small wound. The crucial question now was whether this wound had killed him, or whether it was old and had had time to heal.

EDUARD EGARTER VIGL: We can see that it's a fresh wound, not an old wound. We can see that from the way the cut looks, that it's a diagonal incision and you can only see that in fresh wounds. The second important point is behind the wound. There in the depth of the incision is a brown coloured spot and this comes from blood and both these factors tell us that it's a fresh wound.

NARRATOR: As final proof Vigl inserted a metal rod inside the wound proving it had not had time to heal. The evidence suggested that Ötzi really had been shot shortly before he died so the arrow must have played a role in his death. Sure enough, when Vigl investigated further he discovered the arrow had penetrated an area full of blood vessels.

EDUARD EGARTER VIGL: There certainly would have been bleeding. It is just a question of whether it hit an artery which would cause rapid bleeding, or a vein that would cause slow bleeding. Both of these would have led to a significant weakening of the body and then bleeding to death.

NARRATOR: Vigl was now certain Ötzi had met a violent end. He may even have been murdered. It seems that Ötzi's death had been even more dramatic than the original disaster theory had claimed. It's now possible for scientists to tell a different story of what might have happened that day 5,300 years ago.

Ötzi's final day must have started in a valley below the Alps. He ate his last meal in the woods where spring pollen fell into his food. It was then that things began to go wrong.

KONRAD SPINDLER: The Iceman got involved in a fight. He was chased and as he escaped he was shot, but he fled on. He pulled the arrow out of his wound, but the arrowhead stayed stuck in his body.

EDUARD EGARTER VIGL: I am convinced that he did not die immediately from his injury, but was able to run away. I don't know whether he was pursued or not, but I'm sure that he fled into the mountains.

MARKUS EGG: He reached a high altitude completely exhausted, but his flight was in vain.

EDUARD EGARTER VIGL: I believe that he died up there due to weakness and shock and loss of blood.

NARRATOR: He lay covered in ice for centuries. The ice then melted and his body floated in a pool of water which froze once more. At the moment the evidence fits with such a story, but to be certain Vanezis thinks a fuller investigation is required.

PETER VANEZIS: It's vital to carry out an autopsy because as a forensic pathologist I'm fully aware that you don't really get the answer to all the questions you want unless you have a proper look inside the body and are able to retrieve the evidence.

NARRATOR: Later this year scientists hope to remove the arrow head, but if there's one thing we've discovered it's that Ötzi is full of surprises. There may yet be more secrets hidden in the Iceman.

Find out more

  • Thomas Bereuter from the Vienna University of Technology explains what turned a corpse into an ice mummy.
  • For a closer look at Ötzi's clothing and artefacts, view our Iceman gallery.
Click for programme summary Jump to the Science message board Back to homepage

Science Homepage | Nature Homepage
Wildlife Finder | Prehistoric Life | Human Body & Mind | Space
Go to top

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy