By Graham Cole
I would like to propose a hypothesis for the function of four items found with Ötzi the Iceman. Ötzi the Iceman is a mummy that was found in the Alps in 1991. He had been frozen in the ice for over 5000 years.
If you are unfamiliar with this discovery, I think you’ll enjoy learning more about it. You will find many journal articles and websites devoted to the subject.
I encourage the reader to analyze the work that follows critically as it is not based on a great deal of evidence. I have not seen the artifacts I speak of in person and have only gleaned information from photos on the internet and personal experience. I do not have formal scientific training in this particular field. I apologize if my relative ignorance on the subject offends anyone who has spent their time researching Ötzi with greater scientific rigour than myself.
This hypothesis concerns four of the Iceman’s possessions:
1) The stone disc with 9 leather thongs attached (function often described as unknown). See http://www.myartprints.co.uk/a/copperage/tasselwithpiercedrounddis.html
2) The irregularly-shaped birch polypore fungus with leather thong attached.
3) The doughnut-shaped birch polypore fungus with leather thong attached.
4) The leather belt. See http://www.flickr.com/photos/ticino-turismo/3541328999/in/set-72157618316179017/
I would like to propose that the Iceman used the first three items listed above as harnesses to attach small game to his belt. In this scenario, the birch polypore or stone disc would have formed the toggle of a harness. The game would be attached to the other end of the leather thong(s).
I have created a crude model to illustrate this concept:
The Iceman’s Belt
The Iceman’s belt seems perfectly designed to hold the type of harness described above. While one section is described as a pouch, the other section has two parallel leather thongs woven horizontally into the belt to create loops. The harness could be attached to the belt by loosening the thongs to form two loops, and then passing the stone/polypore toggle through them. The ends of the belt thongs could then be pulled tight with a quick tying, quick release knot such as a bow. This would secure the harness in place and prevent the loss of precious food. It is thought that the Iceman’s belt was long enough to wrap around the waist twice which would provide the tension necessary for this system to work.
I have created a video to illustrate this concept:
Note that on the actual belt the two horizontal leather thongs are low enough on to allow the toggles to rest above them. Close observation of this area shows identations where the toggles would have been. The upper portion of the belt looks like it may have folded over the toggles to keep them dry, or to preven loss of the harnesses. Protection from moisture would have been necessary as birch polypore softens when wet and would have crumbled. If this type of protection was required it also suggests that the belt was worn on the outside of the clothing.
It is worth noting that it is difficult to tie game to a harness when it is attached to a belt, especially if it already has animals attached to it. The toggle system would allow quick release of the harness so it could be attached to the game on the ground and then reattached to the belt as required. This type of quick release system would be especially important if the Iceman was in fact a shepherd, as he would constantly be on the move to tend his flock and would have to keep it in view at all times. Taking his eyes off of his surroundings to spend time dealing with animals could also be quite dangerous if there were enemies lurking about.
The position of the belt loops is directly over the hip which is a great location for carrying game. This point of the body tends to stay stationary when walking and hence the game would not flop around to hinder balance or walking efficiency. It would also expose the game to wind to take advantage of evaporative cooling. If the belt had to support the weight of game it might explain why it was so sturdy.
The harnesses may not have been found attached to the belt because the Iceman might have moved on to hunt larger game just before his death. Due to their design the harnesses may have had a tendency to work out of the belt over time unless something was attached to them. It would have been safer to carry them elsewhere.
The Need for the Harnesses
It is quite likely that the Iceman did at least some hunting or trapping given the items he was carrying. For example, he was found with a bow and arrows and also carried a net that may have been used to capture birds. While large game is mentioned frequently in Iceman-related literature, hunters on the move often rely on small game to form a large part of their diet. It is necessary to cool birds and other game meat immediately after harvesting to prevent spoilage. When in the process of hunting it is inconvenient and time-consuming to skin or pluck game, so it is usually cleaned and carried. A carrying method is often employed until a base camp is reached.
A small game hunter may harvest animals of many different sizes during a day, everything from small squirrels and birds to larger animals such as rabbits. It would make sense to have different types of harnesses to accommodate various sizes of game. In this scenario, the harness with the stone toggle and multiple thongs could have been used for small game and the larger birch polypore harness for larger animals such as rabbits. Alternatively, the heavier duty harnesses or even the belt loops themselves could have been used to carry tools or other items. Maybe the Iceman attached his quiver to his belt using this toggle system.
Evidence suggests that the Iceman died in the spring. The Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix) is a game bird found in the Alps that also happens to mate in the spring. During mating these birds often congregate in large groups and may have been relatively easy to capture with a net. It is therefore possible that the Iceman had to carry more than one bird at a time which would necessitate a harness. I do not know if Black Grouse were found in the area 5300 years ago. Perhaps an ornithologist could shed some light on this.
Birch polypore is soft when wet and hardens as it dries. It would be much easier to carve into shape when soft, and yet it would function in the same way as a stone disc when dry. It is also very lightweight which is an important consideration for someone traveling on foot, especially if they are suffering from arthritis. The stone disc appears to be quite lightweight as well.
The irregularly-shaped piece of fungus may have been harder than the regular piece as it appears that he pushed his knife into it a few times before finding the softest spot. Harder fungus is also more difficult to carve (especially with a flint knife) and this may also explain the irregular shape. He might have been forced to push the lacing through the fungus with his knife because it was too difficult to carve a hole. The doughnut-shaped fungus may have been softer and easier to carve allowing for a more symmetrical shape. Both pieces of polypore could have come from the same piece of fungus that simply hardened as the Iceman traveled.
The central leather thong attached to the stone disc seems too thin to carry game of any significant weight. In addition, it appears that at least two of the nine laces are broken. One can imagine the Iceman making or trading for the stone disc and thong in his village in preparation for his trip and then finding that it was not strong enough for the task out in the field. He may have had to make the heavier duty birch polypore harnesses in a pinch or when larger game was encountered.
I would like to suggest that the stone disc found with the Iceman is actually a spindle whorl. A spindle whorl is a small disc of stone or pottery that that acts as a flywheel when spinning wool. Many examples of them have been found during archeological excavations:
Big spindle worl Roman Period, By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Spindle whorls may have been a common item in the Iceman’s village, and he could have used a discarded one to fashion his harness. If the stone disc is a spindle whorl it would also suggest that he spent a great deal of time around sheep and/or yarn production.
A Design in Use Today
Modern versions of this type of game harness are in common use today. Here are some examples:
If this hypothesis is valid it provides insight into the mastery of the use of natural materials that was required to survive during the copper age and even long before. It provides a fascinating example of human ingenuity and the elegance of design during the period, and gives us important details of the daily life of a man that has taught us so much without speaking a word.
I welcome your comments. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Bonani G, Ivy S, Hajdas I, Niklaus TR, Suter M. 1994. “AMS 14C age determinations of tissue, bone and grass samples from the Ötztal Ice Man”. Radiocarbon 36(2):247-250.
2. Oeggl K. 2000. “The diet of the Iceman”. In: Bortenschlager S. & Oeggl K.(eds) The Iceman and his Natural Environment. The Man in the Ice Vol 4: 89-115.
3. Wikipedia, The Online Encyclopedia. “The Black Grouse”. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Grouse>. Accessed January 15, 2012
4. Murphy WA Jr, Nedden Dz D, Gostner P, Knapp R, Rechis W, Seidler H. 2003. “The iceman: discovery and imaging”. Radiology 226(3):614-29.
I would like to thank my mother Hilary and my partner Diana for their help and support. I would also like to thank the scientists, lab assistants, photographers, journalists and mountaineers who have brought the mysteries of the Iceman to our attention.