Time Traveler

updated 10/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/14/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT WAS 4,000 YEARS AGO-A FILL 2,000 years before the birth of Christ—and the Iceman had places to go. But while he was walking along a high Alpine trail, something terrible happened. Perhaps he fell or got caught in a blizzard or simply became ill. In any event, he died. His body apparently lay hunched over for weeks or months before snow concealed his frozen corpse from sight. Forty centuries later, the mummified body of the Iceman emerged from a melting glacier in Italy near the border with Austria at the feet of a couple of surprised hikers—leaving an astonished world to wonder about his life and mysterious death.

Certainly the morgue slab provided an ignominious home for such a noteworthy fellow. "He was very well nourished, strong and well dressed, truly an elegant chap," said Prof. Konrad Spindler, an archaeologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, who was called in to examine the remains of the Iceman after they were discovered on Sept. 19. "He was a member of some sort of haute bourgeoisie of his time." The Iceman was, in sum, superbly equipped for the fate that made him a posthumous ambassador from the Bronze Age to ours.

His attire bespeaks a man of taste, one accustomed to creature comforts. Spindler estimates that the Iceman was 20 to 40 years old, in the prime of his life. He wore a leather coat lined with fur and padded with straw; his boots were also stuffed with straw and bound around his legs with leather thongs. As for his accoutrements, he could have wandered out of the Bronze Age edition of the Eddie Bauer catalog. There was a backpack made of wood or bark; a leather pouch slung from a belt that contained a flint and tinder for making a fire. He carried a bow and a quiver full of arrows, as well as a wood-handled knife with a flint blade. Surely his prize possession, though, was a handsome bronze ax.

Standing about 5'3", the Iceman may have had a neatly trimmed goatee, though his teeth had been ground down, probably from eating so much meat and coarse meal. Fashion victim that he was, he also went in for tattoos: a cross-shaped design on each knee, and stripes across his back, all probably done with vegetable dye. One of the mysteries surrounding the find is what the Iceman was doing way up at 10,500 feet in the Alps. Though not as sophisticated as Egypt and Mesopotamia, which were flourishing at that time, Europe in the Bronze Age was reasonably well structured socially: People felt tribal allegiances and engaged in some collective enterprises, such as farming and mining. "It is possible that this man had gone on a rather long trip, maybe to find new mineral deposits," said Spindler. "The weapons found beside him would have allowed him to hunt during this expedition."

Spindler calls the discovery of the Iceman an extraordinary event. Yet it is unlikely that in the course of their investigations scientists will uncover anything that will lead to a major rewriting of Bronze Age archaeology. Rather, says Dr. Stuart Needham, a curator of antiquities at the British Museum in London, the real significance is that the Iceman was found in a natural setting instead of in a highly formalized grave. "It's perhaps the first time for the Bronze Age period that we have seen a man in his normal garb, with a set of equipment that he would often carry around with him," says Needham. "Whenever you've got a grave, any goods put in are selected carefully and controlled by ritual."

For the time being the Iceman is being kept at the University of Innsbruck at a temperature of 21°F and a modest moisture level, in order to duplicate conditions in the glacier. In the coming weeks scientists will get down to the painstaking task of finding out all they can about this emissary from the past. To eliminate any possibility of mistake or fraud, they will use carbon dating to fix the age of the body. Some of the most intriguing tests will be performed on his stomach and gut to determine what food he ate just before dying. Experts will also scrutinize the remains for signs of disease or deformities that could yield more clues to the way people lived. Whatever they find, the excitement will probably not match those first moments when the Iceman, who had been brought down from his icy grave site by helicopter, was laid out on a table. There, it was as if Spindler and his colleagues held come face-to-face with a ghost. "The door was held open for me into the hall," Spindler recalls, "and there lay the body and all the things that were saved, and in this second—I was speechless."

BILL HEWITT
CATHY NOLAN in Paris, HELGA CHUDACOFF in Zurich

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