The day I became aware of Otzi was the day I changed my direction in the study bushcraft.
I had been learning and practising bushcraft and survival skills with some enthusiam for quite a few years before I chanced upon some reference to ‘The Man In The Ice’, surprising perhaps as this is not just important to those interested in prehistory, it is quite literally one of the most important archaeological discoveries anywhere!
Otzi, so named after the region of the Italian Alps he was discovered in, is the oldest most perfectly preserved human from 5300 years ago. Just look at that number again, Five Thousand Three hundred years ago… Amazing.
The extreme conditions of the high glacier where the body was first discovered in the early 90’s allowed for the preservation of a so called ‘wet’ mummy rather than the more familiar dry mummy typically associated with the Egyptian culture of preserving their important dead.
The low temperatures and the encasing snow and ice have prevented the body from desiccating and rotting over the thousands of years, providing the modern world a unique opportunity to glean masses of biological information which was hitherto not known about our ancestors or simply guessed at – eye colour, lactose intolerances, parasite infections, tattoos, last meals the fascinating list goes on.
Truly incredible about this find was the discovery of an axe made of copper which pushed back the European bronze age by nearly a thousand years! Most exciting of all to me personally was the clothing and equipment presumably made by and certainly used by the man we have come to know as Otzi.
Everybody’s interpretation of bushcraft and what it means to them is slightly different and I love seeing the connection people have with natural materials through undertaking bushcraft activities and training courses. For me, there is no greater feeling of place in this world than being in woodland. To walk, identify, gather, process and make from completely sustainable materials, to create something functional which directly influences your comfort whilst outdoors is all satisfying.
Otzi to me is a mecca of information on the use of stone, bone, antler, skin, sinew and wood crafted by someone whose very existence depended on these materials. A chance overheard reference inspired me to learn more and I would highly recommend Konrad Spindler’s “The Man In The Ice” (ISBN: 1857991559) to anyone who has even a passing interest in Otzi – it is one of the most thorough (if now slightly outdated) accounts of the find, recovery and analysis of the ice mummy.
The chapters on Otzi’s equipment are fascinating and give anyone who would want to recreate this equipment, much of the needed information on species of materials used, lengths, weights and sizes. It has been coined many times by all sorts of primitive technicians and experimental archaeologists that to not only recreate but then rely on some of the possessions of our prehistoric ancestors is a way of linking minds with them.
Even if, by pure accident, you re-enact some long ago used technique for processing stinging nettle fibres or abrading an antler tine, is this any less valuable than a purely theoretical look at what ‘might’ have been done, stated by an academic professional in the field of ancient history. I think it’s the closest thing to time travel we have. Our bodies and minds haven’t changed all since then, so if we choose to engage with the same natural materials and therefore the same potential frustrations, problems, solutions and successes surely every now and then we will actually re-live a tiny snapshot of what it must have been like?
My journey into outdoor survival skills turned towards the ‘primitive’, all thanks to Mr Otzi and so I realised an ambition of over ten years when I finally arranged to go and see the exhibition of the ice man in the South Tyrol museum of archaeology.
Outside the South Tyrolean Museum of Archaeology.
To stand in front of the actual material items I had read about and amateurishly tried to recreate for so many years was a very humbling experience and coming face to face with Otzi himself was surprisingly quite emotional, on seeing the body of this unknown prehistoric human I couldn’t help feeling like I shouldn’t be looking at him – it felt like I was watching an extremely rare, endangered animal in captivity who shouldn’t really be there.
The lasting impression I have of this incredible find is one of complete admiration for an ancestor who was deeply connected to his material world and was able to manipulate the everyday resources around him to create things of beautiful functional simplicity which none the less were his very lifeline.