His Discovery

Ötzi the Iceman was found near Hauslabjoch in the Ötzal Alps on September 19, 1991, by Helmut and Erika Simon, two vacationing German hikers.

Otzi the Iceman discoveryHelmut was walking a bit ahead of his wife, when he spotted something. He thought it was some trash left by a careless hiker. But when he and his wife looked closer, they realized that they were looking at the body of a person, lying face down in some melting ice.

Disturbed by their discovery, they assumed that they had found the mummified remains of an unfortunate mountain climber. Since it can be difficult to recover the body of a fallen climber, especially if a fresh snowfall covers the area, many people who have died in the mountains are often left there. Their body freezes and does not deteriorate; many such mummies have been recovered.

Helmut Simon wanted to take a photo, but his wife was appalled at the thought of taking a photo of a dead person. Still, Helmut managed to take one photo of the body (he had only two left photos on his roll of film). Then he got closer in order to inspect the body, which was in kind of gully. He saw an object or two around the body, but they meant nothing to him.

The Simons weren't sure that they would report the body. They wondered if their vacation would be interrupted by completing police reports and other official requirements when a body is discovered.

But after hike down the mountain for an hour, they stopped at a rustic lodge for something to drink. Only then did they decide to report their find to Markus Pirpamer, the caretaker of the lodge. In turn, he called the proper authorities who said they would recover the body the following day. The Simons, believing that they had discovered only a modern corpse, could not wait and continued down the mountain, heading for their hotel. Before they left, they provided Pirpamer with directions to the findspot.

When the authorities arrived, they were well aware that the glacier had been melting. Three weeks earlier, the bodies of a man and woman who had gone hiking in 1934 and never returned had been discovered. For this reason, they, like the Simons, assumed that the person had died in a climbing accident.

This explains why the Iceman's "rescuers" made quite a few careless mistakes: they weren't trying to preserve and protect the body, they were just trying to free it from the ice. At first, using a stick that they found nearby (later discovered to be his bow), they attempted to pry him free. They also tried to pull him from the ice by grabbing onto what was left of his clothing. In the process, they shredded it. One policeman was so anxious to free the mummy that he took a small jackhammer to the ice, accidentally drilling a hole in the Iceman's hip. And Pirpamer used an ice pick to finally extract the Iceman. (Brenda Fowler gives a thorough account of all the mistakes made in Chapter 2 of her excellent book, The Iceman.)

When he was finally freed, the Iceman was forced into a coffin, which caused his left arm to break. Then, when photographers were given time to take pictures of the mummy in a nearby morgue, a fungus began to spread across the Iceman's skin.

In the end, Italian and Austrian authorities were shocked to discover that, rather than being a modern-day mountain climber, the man had died about 3000 B.C. He quickly came to be known as the Iceman, one of the oldest and best preserved human mummies ever found.

The Findspot

Ötzi the Iceman was found in the Tisenjoch pass beneath the Finail Peak in northern Italy. The findspot is roughly 10,500 feet above sea level. The body was in a gully at the edge of the melting Niederjoch glacier.

Otzi's findspotIn this protected area beneath the glacier, the ice of the glacier moved above the iceman, allowing him to stay securely in place. The glacier began to melt in the 1800s and has continued melting today. Today a monument at the site of the find has been erected.

One of the most important political questions about Ötzi at the time of his discovery was: in which country was the Iceman found?

Austria and Italy fought a bitter battle over custody, which was resolved only when authorities confirmed that his findspot was located in Italy. That meant Italy was allowed to claim the Iceman, renovate a building to house his exhibit , and reap substantial financial rewards from tourists and documentary filmmakers.

But the issue wasn't truly settled, because many people wondered where Ötzi came from. Was he a pre-Austrian (on his way to what is now Italy) or a pre-Italian (on his way to the area that has become Austria)? Eventual scientific studies confirmed that he was born on the Italian side of the border (a long time before there ever was a border to fight over).

His Equipment

Ötzi the Iceman carried a long list of equipment on his final day. It included:

  • a longbow made of yew

  • a chamois hide quiver

  • fourteen arrows (only two finished)

  • a copper ax

  • a flint-bladed dagger with a woven sheath

  • a tool for sharpening (retouching) flint

  • a larch wood frame and cords of a backpack (pannier)

  • ibex bones

  • two birch-bark cylinders

  • a calf leather belt pouch

  • a tassel made with a white marble bead and twisted hide strips

  • two pieces of birch fungus (each threaded with hide strips)

  • other tools


Some of the items are particularly interesting to scientists and historians. These include:

Otzi's ax1. The copper ax. Scientists were thrilled to find the ax, the only complete prehistoric ax ever discovered.

About two feet long, it was made from a portion of the trunk of a yew tree where a right-angled branch grew. The haft of the ax (i.e., the handle) came from the trunk; the shaft (the part onto which the copper blade was fitted) came from the branch--naturally joined. This allowed maximum durability. Most copper age axes are made from ash wood (Ötzi's was the first one to be found made from yew). The copper blade was fitted into the shaft and wrapped with a leather binding; the binding was coated with birch tar (i.e., boiled sap from the birch tree). The shaft was forked at the end (about 3 inches long). The ax blade extended out of the leather binding about one inch.

Otzi's daggerThe ax would be used quite differently from a modern one: three chops of the Iceman's ax would equal one swing from a modern one. Scientists even reconstructed his ax to make sure that it would work. It took 45 minutes, but a man was able to chop down a yew tree using the ax.

2. The dagger and sheath. The Iceman's knife was only 5 inches long. Its flint blade resembles an arrowhead; it was driven into the wooden handle. Since the handle split when the blade was attached, someone had tied the handle securely together with sinew (or animal tendon). The sheath was woven from lime bast (that is, cords made from the inner bark of a lime tree).

His Clothing

Otzi's cape

Ötzi the Iceman was fully clothed when he died...but his clothing did not fare well during the 5,300 years that he lay undiscovered in the glacier. A good part of it disintegrated...and when he was found, he was mostly naked except for his shoes.

Still, researchers were pleased to find any clothing at all, since this type of material is very rare. When his body did appear from the ice, the back of his clothing was badly damaged (some even blew away), but because he was lying face down, substantial parts of his clothes were saved.

His clothing included:

  • two shoes

  • a kind of goatskin coat

  • a bear fur cap ties with two leather straps

  • two goatskin leggings

  • a goatskin loincloth

  • a woven grass mat (for protection from the rain and cold and worn most likely over the head)

Two of the items were particularly interesting to scientists and historians.

Otzi's shoes1. His shoes. When he was discovered, the Iceman was wearing only his right shoe. They were made of various animal skins: bearskin soles, deerskin insteps, and chamois/cow/calf/linden bark uppers. The uppers were worn with fur on the outside and laced up. Dried tree bark (lime bast) was also stuffed inside the shoes to keep his feet warm. Although these are the oldest "shoes" ever found, a pair of 10,000-year-old slippers was discovered in Oregon, so they are the oldest footwear.


Otzi's cape2. The grass mat. The mat, woven from alpine swamp grass, was found in three separate pieces. At first, archaeologists believed that this was a cape, but the shoulders part of the cape seemed too narrow to be of any use. Instead, researchers now suspect that this mat may have been worn over his head...as a type of protection from the rain (or snow) or possibly as part of a backpack. These are best guesses, however, but no definite answers.

His Tattoos

Ötzi also had tattoos. Because they were hard to find on the mummified body, the number has varied over the years. Now researchers believe that they have found them all: 61 tattoos in all.

The tattoos were made by rubbing charcoal into punctured areas in his skin. According to Discover, the tattoos "are organized into 19 different groups. Each group of tattoos is simply a set of horizontal or vertical lines."

Since many of the tattoos are found in places where he had known ailments (such as arthritis) and where acupuncture treatments are typically done to alleviate pain, Ötzi's tattoos may provide evidence for knowledge of acupuncture techniques in the Copper Age.

His Health

Although the Iceman's body was in bad shape when it was discovered, he was in relatively good condition before his final day of life...for a man of his age and time period.

Scientists have studied his body, inside and out, to discover that he was about 5 feet 2 inches tall when he died. However, his body had shrunk over the 5,300 years, and he had lost a few inches when he was discovered.

He weighed about 110 pounds at death, though again he lost considerable weight afterwards. Today, according to scientists, his mummified body weighs only about 29 pounds.

When he died, he was about 45 years old, an age that not many at this time attained. He most likely had brown eyes and Type O blood.

During their scientific studies, researchers found a number of problems that the Iceman faced:

  • He had whipworm parasite eggs in his colon. This means that Ötzi had a fairly severe intestinal disorder which would have caused diarrhea or possibly dysentery.

  • He had fleas, or so said scientist Konrad Spindler, in an interview with the Austrian Press Agency. According to Spindler, recent testing revealed the presence of two fleas in the Iceman's clothing. Spindler said that fleas have previously been traced back only to the 5th or 6th Century B.C.

  • His right hip joint showed signs of aging (it had a small fracture typical of what happens after a lifetime of wear and tear).

  • His body showed signs of healed fractures (ribs and nose).

  • His fingernails showed signs of stress during the last few months of his life.

  • His lungs were discolored by the residue from smoky fires.

  • He had Lyme disease, perhaps the earliest known case of the illness.

  • He was lactose intolerant.


The dental news is that he had terrible tooth decay and gum disease. The enamel of his teeth was worn down from the abrasive nature of the various milled grains he was eating; they were not finely ground. This is typical of many civilizations and not unusual.

And oddly enough, they discovered two peculiarities during their examinations. First, Ötzi had no wisdom teeth. Second, he was missing his twelfth pair of ribs.

Finally, a note about his skin and hair. His body was naturally "scalped" by the process of mummification. The upper layer of skin including most of his hair had peeled right off the body during the time that he was in the ice. Though he had a full head of hair, it was not found attached to the body.

His Three Faces

Artists have reconstructed Ötzi's face three different times. Here is what he has looked like over the years:


Otzi's first facial reconstructionFace 1 (1993):

Artist John Gurche reconstructed the Iceman's face despite limited data in the early 1993. By feeding the data from CT-scans of Ötzi's skull into a 3D computer imaging program, Gurche was able to see what the Iceman's skull might have looked like. He then sculpted the skull before he could add the facial features. He used tissue depth measurements from modern-day European men to determine the thickness of Ötzi's face. These factors may have made the final result more art than real life.


Face 2 (1998):

A second reconstruction was done after the Iceman was transferred to Italy in Otzi's second facial reconstruction1998 to be housed in his very own museum. Museum officials wanted a new reconstruction based on the latest research and facial reconstruction techniques.

Professor Peter Vanezis of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, a forensic medical specialist, performed the reconstruction. This time, the 3D imaging produced a replica skull for Vanezis. According to a BBC program about the Iceman, Vanezis "then used a laser to scan the skull into his facial reconstruction system. This measured the proportions of the skull and shapes a generic face to match. This allowed him to recreate Ötzi's face at last."

Of course, a generic face is not quite the same as the Iceman's real face. But it was this face, attached to a life-sized figure of the Iceman, that greeted museum visitors in Bolzano, beginning in 1998.


Face 3 (2011):

A third reconstruction was done for the twentieth anniversary of the Iceman's discovery. Otzi's third facial reconstructionAlfons and Adrie Kennis, paleontological artists (twin brothers) from the Netherlands, used a new replica of the Iceman's skull. Based on 2010 CT-scans of the Iceman's skull as well as other data, the replica was created using stereolithography. In this method, a machine used for creating plastic prototype models constructed the skull of Ötzi more accurately than the previous two replicas.

The latest face makes the Iceman look older: his skin is wrinkled and leathery, his face is drawn and haggard. He clearly has been through a lot in his life. (And notice in the video link below that the new reconstruction has brown eyes, unlike reconstruction #1 with its blue eyes. This is based on the latest research.)

Here is a YouTube video of this third reconstruction done for the National Geographic.



You can read more about a NOVA episode at PBS and order a copy of the DVD here.

You can also get a much better close-up view of the Iceman on the European Research website. Scientists at this organization have scanned the Iceman. The result is incredible.

His Curse

To date, at least seven people associated with the Iceman or his discoverers have died. When these deaths are added up and viewed together, some people have concluded that a Curse of Ötzi truly exists.

Here are the deaths, in order of occurrence:

First death: Rainer Henn, 64, a forensic pathologist from the University of Innsbruck who placed the Iceman in a body bag with his bare hands (you can read about the recovery of the body in some detail in Fowler's book, The Iceman; a picture of Henn helping to place the body into a coffin is included in her book). A year later, he was killed in an automobile accident on his way to a conference where he would discuss the results of his work on the Iceman.

Second death: Kurt Fritz, 52, a mountain guide who supposedly led Dr. Henn to the Iceman's body and who was said to have uncovered the Iceman's face when it was recovered from the ice (NOTE: this is far from the official report according to Fowler's book and Fritz's name isn't mentioned in her book, which is the most comprehensive source to date. It may be that he simply organized the helicopter transportation for the Iceman's body off the mountain). He was killed in an avalanche.

Third death: Rainer Hölz, 47, a filmmaker who made a documentary about the recovery of Ötzi from the ice for the ORF network. He died of a brain tumor.

Fourth death: Helmut Simon, 69, who, along with his wife, discovered the Iceman's body. His body was discovered October 23, 2004, after he went missing while on a mountain hike. Eight days after he had failed to return from a mountain hike, searchers discovered Simon's body in a stream. He apparently died after a 300 foot fall on Austria's Gaiskarkogel peak. Searchers believe that he was hiking on an unmarked path when he fell.

Fifth death: Dieter Warnecke, 45, who headed the rescue team looking for Simon's frozen body. He died of a heart attack just hours after Helmut Simon's funeral.

Sixth death: Konrad Spindler, 66, who led the scientific team that recovered and examined the Iceman in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1991. According to newspaper accounts, Spindler died from complications related to multiple sclerosis.

Seventh death: Tom Loy, 63. a molecular archaeologist who discovered human blood on Ötzi's weapons and clothing and who was featured in a National Geographic documentary about the Iceman in 2002. Family members confirmed that Loy suffered from a hereditary blood disease (that caused blood clots to form), first diagnosed about 1992...when Loy first began work on the Iceman.

Of course, anyone interested in exploring the possibility of a curse would have to ask some key questions:


  • how many people have worked on or come into contact with the Iceman since he was discovered in 1991?

  • is their death rate significantly higher than the ordinary population?

  • how unusual is it for 7 people associated with the Iceman's discovery or his discoverers to die (considering they would be dying one day anyway)?


And at least one other question must also be asked:


  • who benefits from the idea of an Ötzi curse?


Anyone interested in selling more newspaper and magazines (or on-air advertisements for television "documentaries") stands to gain whenever "the curse of Ötzi" is publicized, with another name added to the growing list of the deceased. And the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (the Iceman's home in Bolzano, Italy) probably gains, since any publicity may well increase attendance at the museum.

But the simple truth of the matter is: there is no such curse, no matter what the media reports.

The Lawsuits

Over the years a series of lawsuits were filed in which three different claimants asked for compensation for discovering Ötzi.

The first lawsuit was filed by the Simons. According to Brenda Fowler in her book Iceman, the Simons began to wonder about the possible financial rewards of their find shortly after it occurred.

Fowler writes:

They had been home less than a week [after discovering the Iceman] when an Innsbruck lawyer called to inform them that he believed they might have some claim to the corpse. At first, the idea struck them as absurd. It was a treasure that belonged to all humanity, and they felt honored to have discovered him. Then again, they thought they should at least inquire. But first they hired another lawyer to deal with the Innsbruck lawyer.


Trial #1

Eventually in January, 2003, the Simons asked a court in Bolzano, Italy, to recognize their role in the Iceman's discovery and declare them the "official discoverers" of the Iceman.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, their lawyer said: "My clients are simple, honest folk, lovers of nature, for whom the discovery was probably the most eventful moment of their lives." He indicated that his clients would be content "if only a plaque were to go up with their names."

However, there was speculation that the Simons wanted more than a monument, because if they won their lawsuit, the Simons would (by Italian law) be entitled to a finders' fee of 25 percent of the value of the discovered item. At the time, it was calculated that Ötzi was earning about 2.5 million euros a year in admission fees alone at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano (and even more in photo rights), so 25 percent of Ötzi's value would have been a considerable amount.

In November 2003, the Simons were declared the official finders' of Ötzi, but it was unclear how the Iceman's value would be determined. By the end of December 2003, the Simons announced that they wanted $300,000 to settle the lawsuit. Instead, local government officials appealed the decision.


Other Claimants

In October 2005, two other people claimed to have discovered the Iceman first: Slovenian actress Magdalena Mohar Jarc and a Swiss woman named Sandra Nemeth.

Jarc claims to have discovered the Iceman first. She wrote the court that after her discovery, she went to find someone to take a photo of the corpse. The people she reportedly found to take the photo were the Simons who stole the discovery from her.

Nemeth wrote the court that she found the Iceman before the Simons and that she got into an argument with the couple about the discovery. Then she spit on Ötzi to make sure that her DNA would be found on the body, thus verifying her claim.

News reports did not indicate why either Jarc or Nemeth waited so long to come forward, but some speculated that it might have had something to do with the value of the Iceman .


Trial #2

Despite the other two claimants' appeal to the court, in June 2006, the appeals court ruled that the Simons did indeed discover the Iceman and were therefore entitled to a finder's fee. What's more, the court ruled that the provincial government must also pay the Simons' legal fees. The victory was bittersweet, in that Mr. Simon had died in 2004.

However, government officials still insisted that they would pay no more than €50,000. The Simons' lawyer argued that the Iceman earned a considerable amount of money for the provincial government both in admissions fees at the museum and in money brought in from tourism; for this reason, he argued, they were entitled to a larger sum as a settlement.

The Simons were granted a settlement of €150,000. However, the provincial government responded that the high expenses it had incurred to establish a museum and maintain the Iceman's preservation should be considered when determining the finder's fee; therefore, they maintained that a reduced fee was justified. Of course, Mrs. Simon saw things differently.


The Final Outcome

In September 2008, the lawyer representing Erika Simon (and Helmut Simon's estate) announced that the lawsuit between the Simons and the Bolzano provincial government was over: they would receive €150,000 ( approximately $208,000 at the time) by the end of October 2008. However, the provincial government of Bolzano apparently dragged its feet and did not pay the settlement until June, 2009.

Other Recommended Books

Ancient Ice Mummies

Pompeii: Guide to the Site by Pier Giovanni Guzzo

The Glacier Mummy for Kids

Pompeii's Living Statues: Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death

The Iceman by Brenda Fowler

Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City

Best Scientific

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