Mummies Alive! Program 3: Otzi the Iceman (Review)

Was Otzi the Iceman a Victim of Ritual Sacrifice 5,300 Years Ago?

Otzi the Iceman
Image of Otzi the Iceman, in the Institute for Mummies & the Iceman. Smithsonian Channel: Mummies Alive!

Mummies Alive! Otzi the Iceman. 2015. Narrated by Jason Priestley, directed and written by Alex Hearle, executive producer Tom Evans. Featuring Albert Zink, biologist at Institute for Mummies & the Iceman; archaeologist Francis Pryor; consulting forensic pathologist Richard Shepherd. Scenes and input from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, the Regional Hospital of Bolzano, Archäopark. The Mummies Alive series is a production of Impossible Factual Ltd.

and Saloon Media in association with Smithsonian Channel and Shaw Media. Executive Producers for Smithsonian Channel are Tim Evans, David Royle and Charles Poe. 45 minutes.

Who killed Otzi the Iceman? The third program in the Mummies Alive series from the Smithsonian Channel airing on June 21st gives us a new slant on the Neolithic man lost in the Alps 5,300 years ago: mummy as murder mystery.

Otzi the Iceman

Otzi the Iceman is the best known name of the body of a man who died in the Austrian-Italian Alps about 5,300 years ago. Because he died at 11,000 feet about sea level, he was preserved in the glacier, in fact very well preserved. Scientific studies of his mummy have taught us a wealth of information about Neolithic lifestyles, everything from the high-tech clothing of the time, to the tattoos on his back, and his diet and living conditions.

Indeed, the final 30 hours of Otzi's life have been painstakingly rebuilt based on pollen and food particles preserved in his digestive system.

Scholars are pretty well agreed that the man died as a result of an arrow shot into his back. Who shot the arrow is, of course, a matter of speculation. But there's so much evidence, if not eye witness accounts, it's simply too tantalizing to not try to figure out the guilty party.

Mummy as Murder Mystery

In the program, archaeologist Francis Pryor (best known from his decades of work on the long-lived reality television series Time Team) takes front and center with his new theory: that the Ice Man was a victim of ritual sacrifice.

The idea is controversial--and as far I can tell not yet published in the scientific literature--but definitely interesting.

The most compelling evidence brought to the surface by Pryor is the layout of the "crime scene". A remarkably complete tool kit was found near Otzi, including a copper axe, a flint knife and a partially completed yew bow. All of these things are laid near Otzi's body. But, strangely enough, the shaft of the arrow which killed him has been removed from his body. Consulting forensic pathologist Richard Shepherd, a regular to the Mummies Alive series, argues instead that this represents a deliberate coverup by the assailant. Ah! Where's Miss Marple when you need her?

Mummies Alive! Program Content

"Mummies Alive! Otzi the Iceman" includes plenty of background about the Iceman, from his 1991 discovery in the Ötztal Mountains by a couple of hikers to the results of the vast amounts of scientific study on his corpse led by Albert Zink and others at the Institute for Mummies & the Iceman at the Museum of the South Tyrol.

Re-enactments by actors, abetted by not-entirely-successful CGI animation, help recreate the man's death: and some of the filmed portions include Prior's visit to the reconstructed "typical Neolithic village" at Archäopark.

(For the pedants among us: Otzi likely lived in an alpine lake dwelling, not quite the same as the Archäopark reconstruction, but not that far off). Experimental archaeology illustrates several of the tools used by Otzi. My favorite of these is that of the birchbark container, which scholars have interpreted as evidence that Otzi carried live hearth embers with him on his last trip into the mountains.

Bottom Line

While the CGI isn't perfect and rather repeated more often than absolutely necessary (are we spoiled by Disney and Pixar or what!), the program is well worth the time. The theory that Otzi was a sacrifice is intriguing, and the program is a good general introduction on Otzi and the vast quantities of research completed to date.

Mummies Alive runs between June 7th and July 12th, on the Smithsonian Channel.

The Otzi the Iceman premieres Sunday evening June 21, 2015.

Reviews of the series:

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

Further Reading

A summary of the scientific research on Otzi and a partial list of the extensive publications on the man and the work on him can be found in The Iceman--Lost in the Italian Alps 5,000 Years Ago.