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South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (Bolzano, Italy)

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“ South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology / Via Museo /Museumstraße 43 / I- 39100 Bolzano/Bozen. „

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      17.01.2007 11:05
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      Fascinating exhibition of a world famous frozen mummy and his belongings

      This is the story of a man who set off to walk across a high Alpine pass from Italy into Austria. He never reached his destination, but his body was found where he fell, mortally wounded - 5,300 years later.

      There is some evidence, which I'll come to later, that he was an important personage in his day. Whether that is true or not, he has certainly found fame now as Ă–tzi, as he is known in that irritatingly twee diminutive. He was found high up in the Ă–tztal, south-west of Innsbruck, and everywhere along that very long valley his shaggy profile is used as a marketing hook for everything from children's playgrounds to hiking boots. Further afield, he has, of course, been the subject of endless scientific research, articles, TV programmes (including our very own BBC) and now has his own museum and last resting-place. In Italy. Bolzano, not Innsbruck.

      Discovered in 1991 by a German couple, it quickly became obvious that this was not the body of a luckless modern hiker. Although the initial investigations were done in Innsbruck, the importance of the find meant that its precise location relative to the border was subject to almost as close a scrutiny. Eventually he was deemed to be Italian (Ă–tzino?) by a margin of about 250 feet! So back he went, retracing his steps, as it were, but this time accompanied by armed police and helicopters as the normally peaceful Austrians were not best pleased at this outcome, and "terrorist threats" were made. As we shall see, Ă–tzi does seem to attract trouble to himself.

      I have to admit that the discovery had passed me by until we spent a family walking holiday in the Ă–tztal, where, as I said, he is unavoidable. To give our legs a rest one day, we drove over the Brenner Pass, down the autostrada, to Bolzano to see what all the fuss was about. Definitely a trip worth making. The level of preservation of the finds, the precision of the research and the details of the conclusions are jaw-dropping, although Ă–tzi does not give up all his secrets. But there is a disquieting aspect to the museum which I'll leave to the end. Now that's the third time I've said "I'll come to that" or similar; clearly time to go through the doors of the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum.

      Which is what we tried to do, only to have our way barred by a firm, polite, multi-lingual lady who showed us the queue. Queue? There can be a bit of a logjam inside at busy times so visitors are admitted in batches of about 50, although you can stay as long as you like. This was in July so outside the high season you could probably swan in. We only waited about 15 minutes. Once inside, equip yourself with one of the excellent audio commentaries, the kind that you hold up to your ear like an outsize mobile phone and select numbers on the keypad to correspond with numbers on the displays. Although Ă–tzi is the main focus of the museum, it also covers Tyrolean archaeology from the palaeolithic to the early middle ages. The ground floor is devoted to explanations of the eras from palaeolithic to chalcolithic - flora and fauna, clothes, tools, food, trade. I don't know about you, but faced with those maps of Europe of, say, the late stone age, covered in coloured arrows, dotted lines and shaded areas, purporting to show migrations, glacier coverage or the distribution of the two-horned lesser aurochs, my mind shuts down. I have looked at them countless times in countless museums and every time I struggle to slot a particular site into its place in history. Fortunately, my husband is only too pleased to patronise me - again - with an idiot's guide. These particular displays are, on the whole, user-friendly, idiot-proof and have some imaginative layouts. It is worth spending a little time here, at least to fix in your mind that Ă–tzi is from the chalcolithic (stone/copper) period, and that he and his people were quite mobile, roaming over these high Alpine tracks of what is now the South Tyrol both for agricultural and trading purposes.

      So upstairs to the highlights of the museum. Ice is a marvellous natural preservative, so not only has Ă–tzi survived, so too has much of his clothes and clobber. Like any modern hiker, he had boots, leggings, backpack, repair kit, first aid kit and a camping-stove; unlike most modern hikers he also had a bow, a quiverful of arrows (literally, not the Jeffrey Archer paperback), a dagger and an axe. His clothes and kit were made of woven vegetation and animal skins, but they are not amorphous lumps which only an expert could enthuse over. Nor are they artefacts of great beauty, it has to be said, but clearly functional - and made to last! They are well displayed in walk-around glass cases, not too cluttered, and with some excellent clear diagrams to accompany the audio guide. I won't describe every find in detail - I want you to go and see them for yourselves - but I'll confine myself to my favourites. The axe: a pure copper axehead with an intact haft. This really looks the business and has a pleasing functional beauty to it. And what I called above his camping-stove: he carried a small pouch of fungus which contains iron pyrites. Strike a flint on these, pee on the fungus (for nitrogen, of course) which then begins to glow, add a bit of tinder and you've got a small fire going in no time.

      So how did he die? Well, the arrowhead found in his back probably had a lot to do with it, and of course there is endless speculation about why he was killed. Was he on the run? Was he robbed? And where was he going - trading, shepherding animals, or even, fancifully, on a diplomatic mission? The possession of the axe, and the trading or shepherding scenarios suggest a community leader. There is enough material to keep scientists going for decades yet, but what they have discovered so far is mind-boggling. We know his age, height and weight, what he had for his last meal (porridge and grilled meat since you ask), when he ate it, recent illnesses, what time of year it was, where he lived (in a valley north west of Bolzano), what parasites he suffered from. They have even reconstructed his face.

      Then to the man himself. Yes, he's here, on display in a climate controlled cell and visitors can look at him through a 2 feet by 2 feet window. He lies on his back, his left arm flung across the upper part of his body, shrunken and leathery, but recognisably human. Disconcertingly, his eyes are still in place. They're blue.

      What are we to make of a human being as a museum exhibit? I'm all for scientists investigating Ă–tzi as a way of furthering knowledge, but should we paying punters be allowed to gawp? Does it make a difference that he's 5,000 years old? Surely he should be treated with dignity whatever age and state he's in, and I don't feel that this last resting-place of his is very dignified. We are exhorted by our audio guide at this point to show respect as it is a human being we are looking at, and visitors on the whole did go quiet, but I felt the opposite - disquieted, disturbed. There was an unpleasant episode of body-snatching in the papers recently which was greeted with universal revulsion, but surely not just because the relatives were still alive? The fact that Ă–tzi's sisters, cousins and aunts are long since dust doesn't give later generations the right to indulge in voyeurism.

      And yet, as I looked at him, I experienced an overwhelming sensation. I felt with an almost physical force the length of years separating his life and mine. Almost every event in the history of humanity lay between us and still we could practically touch each other. I doubt I would have felt this quite so strongly looking at a model. Through an involuntary experiment in cryogenics he has attained a form of immortality.

      There is another floor to the museum, covering the bronze age, iron age and archaeology through to about 800AD. But murder, mummification and metaphysics were enough for one day.


      Practicalities: where, when, how much.

      We parked in the underground carpark at the Piazza Walter, in the centre of Bolzano. From here it is a short stroll of about 10 minutes down the Via Museo, which leads off the Piazza Walter to the museum. It is pedestrianised all the way. Entrance prices are 8€ for adults, 6€ for children and OAPs, 16€ for a family ticket, 2€ for an audio guide. Opening hours are 10am to 5.30pm Tuesday to Sunday, and also on Mondays in July, August and December. There is a shop. It is on 3 floors, but the website says it has full wheelchair access so I guess there must be lifts.

      If you want to walk in Ă–tzi's footsteps, here's how to do it from the Austrian side. Drive up the Ă–tztal to Vent. Park in one of the many hikers' carparks and take the path to the Martin Busch HĂĽtte (about 2 hours). Several trails lead off from here, but you want the trail to the Similaun HĂĽtte (2 hours). Another hour along the trail to the Tisenjoch and you'll come to the memorial cairn.

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    • Product Details

      The collection on exhibit at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is structured chronologically and documents the entire history of South Tyrol from the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Age (15,000 BC) to the Carolingian period (around 800 AD). Set off against the wider historical background, the Iceman along with the associated finds form the exhibit's core. Models, reconstructions, stereoscopic pictures, videos and interactive multimedia stations allow the visitor to gain insight into the ancient past of the southern Alpine region in a way that is, at the same time, highly informative and entertaining.