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Iceman : Shaman?

Alby Stone

The discovery of a corpse on a glacier in the Oetztal Alps, on the Austrian border with Italy, became big news all over the world in 1991. This was no ordinary cadaver: it was nothing more nor less than the remarkably well-preserved body of a man who had lived in the late Neolithic period, some five thousand-odd years ago.

This chance find notonly galvanised the world of archaeology: it sparked a fierce dispute between Austria and Italy, concerning ownership of the remains; and it was the focus of bizarre rumour and wild speculation. One rumour had it that sperm had been found in the corpse's anus; another told how the body had been found minus penis and/or testicles, and that examination had shown that their removal had occurred prior to death. Women allegedly queued up to demand impregnation, from either frozen but viable sperm, or by having ova implanted with DNA extracted from the body. The whole thing was alleged to be a fraud, or simply the misidentified body of a strangely-dressed modern eccentric. The epoch-making discovery, already enthralling to anyone with even a vague interest in history or anthropology, was, it appeared, just too tame for popular tastes.

One idea that kept cropping up was that the deceased had been a shaman, possibly dying of exposure when caught out in the open during a mystical retreat on the treacherous mountainside. Several facts opened the way for this particular speculation. The body was tattooed; his weapons (a roughly-hewn bow made of yew) resembled the dummy weapons associated with shamans in certain cultures; he had borne a pouch containing, among other things, fungi; and he was found with a copper-headed axe, which marked him out as an individual of high status. And, of course, the body had been found high in the mountains, suggesting that he had travelled to be closer to the gods. The rumoured castration, with its echoes of - for example - the Kybele cult of Asia Minor, and the transvestism or ritual homosexuality associated with shamanism, added fuel to the fire.

Two years later, Konrad Spindler, who led the scientific investigation of the corpse and its trappings, published his own account of the discovery and examination of the remains, in a book that soon appeared in English as The Man in the Ice (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994). In it, Spindler rebuts many of the rumours and popular notions that grew up around the discovery - including the assertion that the Iceman had been a shaman. Indeed, Spindler is extremely reluctant to read magical associations or ritual practices into any aspect of the Iceman or his belongings. Actually, that is something of an understatement: Spindler is openly scornful of the shaman idea, and prefers a more mundane interpretation based on little more than his own opinion.

Before looking at Spindler's attitude to this, it is necessary to make two points. Firstly, the Iceman's genital region is as intact as any man's private parts would be after being buried under tons of ice for five millenia or more. He is as complete in the penile department as can be expected in the circumstances; his testicles, although very badly crushed, are there; and there is no genital damage that cannot be attributed either to long-term glaciation, or to the initial, indelicate recovery of the body. Secondly, his bow, despite showing signs of hasty manufacture, seems to have been intended to be fully functional.

That neatly disposes of the idea of ritual castration, and casts sufficient doubt upon the notion of dummy weapons to allow for its dismissal. What more does Spindler have to say about the Iceman as shaman?

Spindler remarks that 'many scholars of the civilized world face this phenomenon [shamanism] helplessly and uncomprehendingly, so that their studies are usually confined to a description of outward aspects' (p. 238). He goes on to describe the physical paraphernalia of shamanism: the mask and animal disguise, amulets and other magical objects, instruments for making noises; monotonous rhythmical dancing, ecstatic trance. Then, he briefly mentions the functions of shamanism, the links with hunting, and the ability to 'reach down to the depths of the human and animal soul and to embrace ghostly manifestations at various transcendental levels' (p. 239).

The first comment is palpable nonsense. There are many - including Mircea Eliade, William James, Michael Harner and Joseph Campbell, to name but four - who have done much more than describe the 'outward aspects'. And in any case, it must be pointed out that the primary job of archaeologists and anthropologists is just that - to locate and describe physical form, structure and context. The rest, analysis and interpretation, comes later. Furthermore, the inner life of a shaman can only be truly appreciated by direct experience or considered dialogue, and it is only quite recently that anthropologists have begun to reject the observation-only approach traditionally favoured by the field. There is, too, the simple fact that shamanism is not just a matter of reaching down to the depths of the soul, or of 'embracing ghostly manifestations at various transcendental levels'. This would, quite inappropriately, equate shamans with psychoanalysts and suchlike. The shamanic experience invariably includes a complex and highly structured cosmology, a wide variety of ecstatic techniques, and an equally wide range of functions - storytelling, medicine, otherworld journeying, prognostication and divination, arbitration, presiding over public rituals, psychotherapy of a kind, and so on - that differs from one culture to the next. In fact, aside from acknowledging the ritual paraphernalia, Spindler adopts a view that is essentially 'New Age', and expresses it in language that would not be out of place in a Californian self-improvement manual.

Spindler gives several reasons for not accepting that the Iceman could have been a shaman. The body was found near known prehistoric trade routes, which makes it unlikely that the man was on a magical retreat at an isolated spot; the tassel with a marble bead was probably just an ornament, as beads are found in many prehistoric graves, and not part of a shaman's costume - although such items do form part of ritual garb elsewhere in Eurasian shamanism; the castration theory and the dummy weapons idea are non-starters; and the tattoos, he states with some justification, have been 'unequivocally shown to be therapeutic aids within the framework of one or more treatments, designed to ease...joint pains' (p. 240). Pages 238-239 show drawings of the so-called Bison-man from Gabillon in the Dordogne, and the Stag-man and Aurochs-man from Les Trois Frres in the Pyrenees, cave pictures which, as the accompanying text suggests, have been 'interpreted as shamans'. These, the text continues, 'clearly demonstrate that the Iceman cannot have been a shaman' - which begs the question of how an interpretation can clearly demonstrate anything of the kind. It must also be recognised that these paintings pre-date the Iceman by between ten and fifteen thousand years, and the form and aspect of shamanism in Europe of the late Neolithic is as yet completely unkown. The shamanic interpretation of these splendid examples of cave art is by no means certain, even if they are suggestive; it is just as possible that they represent anthropomorphised animals or gods.

The body's location was, indeed, near to recognised Neolithic trade routes - which ran through nearby passes - but it was not actually on one. An aerial photograph of the site shows that it is not easily accessible, and it is not reasonable to suppose that the Iceman could have simply strayed there from one of the passes. Spindler opts for the explanation that the Iceman was a herdsman from a mixed agricultural/pastoral community, responsible for pasturing a flock of sheep or goats on the high mountain grasslands during the summer months, and states that there is 'no detail which does not fit this interpretation' (p. 248). According to the reconstructed scenario, the Iceman met his death when, following a wintertime 'disaster' involving a 'violent conflict' he fled his lowland home, choosing for his escape route 'the one with which he was familiar from the annual transhumance' (p. 250). Forensic evidence suggests that the nature of the Iceman's home community, and the season of his death, have been interpreted correctly; and his injuries do indicate that he could have been wounded in battle. But it is surely stretching credulity to assert that he fled from conflict, with several broken ribs, to what he must have known was certain death high in the mountains in winter.

Spindler also considers whether the Iceman could have been a hunter. Some of his gear - the net, the bow, the axe, the dagger - would fit in well with this idea; but it is rejected by Spindler on the grounds that, 'while hunting may have been a more or less major factor in the Late Neolithic population's food supplies, the main weight of the economic system rested upon arable and stock farming' (p. 245). This is a rather odd reason for thinking that the Iceman could not have been out hunting when he met his end, but it is indicative of Spindler's way of thinking: the broad economic picture determines the nature of the individual discovery. Spindler completely ignores the ritual nature of hunting in various agricultural and pastoral communities, or the fact that hunting occurs in such communities anyway, both as sport and as a means of varying diet. In fact, there is no evidence that could unequivocally suggest that the Iceman was not out hunting when he died. And as for his injuries: some of his broken ribs (those on his left side) had all healed well; his other rib injuries (on his right side) could have occurred at any time within two months of his death, and Spindler himself admits that 'the most likely explanation...is an accident' (p. 180), and notes that 'serial rib fractures occur mainly in people at risk of falling' (p. 179).

Looked at in this way, the evidence casts serious doubts on Spindler's favoured explanation of the Iceman's death, and on his reasons for the man being out on the wintry mountainside in the first place. In other words, despite Spindler's confident assertions to the contrary, we do not know for sure what his occupation was, why he was in such an inhospitable place, or what he was doing there at that season.

Spindler's explanation for the tattoos (which include groups of parallel lines clustered along the lower spine, a cross behind the right knee and another on the left ankle, and further groups of parallel lines on the right foot and ankle, and on the left calf) is that they formed part of a therapeutic regime for joint and muscle pains. They do indeed coincide with worn joints - a breathtaking discovery in itself, a new and authenticated example of Neolithic medicine - and with precisely those muscles most prone to strain in mountaineers. Spindler compares the tattoos with marks found on the mummified corpse of a high-status Scythian male found at Pazyryk in the Altai mountains; and with similar marks made for the same purpose by cauterisation among Eurasian nomads and in Tibet. It is possible that there may be other tattoos that cannot be distinguished because of the severe discoloration of some parts of the corpse, so the presence of hidden tattooed tribal or ritual markings cannot be ruled out.

If there are tattoos, there must have been a tattoist. Self-tattooing is rare enough, but the Iceman could not have done all of those found on his body; it would have been impossible to do those on his back, and very difficult to make the cross behind his knee. This suggests that either tattooing was a common therapeutic technique that had many practitioners, or that the Iceman's community had perhaps only one or two individuals to whom the rest went for diagnosis and treatment, a healer or shaman. This would not completely rule out the Iceman being a shaman. After all, who heals the ailing healer?

The final controversy centres upon the fungi found threaded onto a calfskin thong bracelet found alongside the corpse. These have been identified as parts of the fruiting body of a common birch fungus, Piptoporus betulinus. This had been assumed to be tinder, but this particular fungus is not very flammable, and is not an effective tinder. It does, however, contain polyporic acid C, which is an effective antibiotic, especially active against mycobacteria. Spindler speculates that it formed part of a 'travelling medical kit' (p. 116), but also briefly mentions 'a few apocryphal references to its allegedly hallucinogenic properties', following which he makes an astonishing comment. Stating that this 'has yet to be proved either medically or pharmaceutically', he goes on to say that 'it need not, then, enter into our hypotheses about the significance of the fungi among the Iceman's belongings' (p. 115).

Considering that another fungus closely associated with the birch, Amanita muscaria, is not only hallucinogenic but is also known to be used by various Eurasian shamans as an aid to ecstasy, it would seem essential to consider the possibility that, if not authentically hallucinogenic, it could at least have been believed to be so. Taking a leaf out of Spindler's own book, and making an analogy with cultures far removed in space and time from the Iceman's own, one is reminded of the 1960s rumour that one could get stoned by smoking prepared banana skins. The present writer tried this himself, resulting only in the elevation of the contents of his stomach to a higher plane; but the interesting point is that, in spite of there being no known intoxicant present in the substance, several of his peers did indeed get high, or believed themselves to be intoxicated. Whether or not the fungus is hallucinogenic, the issue of popular belief should not be ignored. The question is, how did the 'apocryphal references' arise? Spindler does not give references for these, nor does he give references for medical or pharmaceutical tests conducted on the birch fungus, and without these or a good knowledge of mycopharmacology it is hard to make any kind of judgement. But it is abundantly clear that, in a case such as this, none but the most unrealistic hypotheses should be dismissed in such an offhand manner.

In reality, Spindler's book raises nearly as many questions as it claims to answer. With regard to the Iceman's status and occupation, the manner of his death, and his reasons for being where he died and when, all he offers is speculation raised to the level of authority by his own convictions and professional reputation. His conclusions are flawed, or only partly justifiable. There is, to be sure, no evidence that the Iceman was a shaman, but then there is no real evidence that would firmly indicate that he was anything else. What, when all is said and done, would a Neolithic shaman wear, on duty or off? Quite simply, we do not know. All that can really be said is that this man was in an inappropriate place at a rather risky time of year; that he had been severely injured more than once; that he had received the medical treatment of the day for other conditions; and that he carried with him some ambiguous or enigmatic objects, and a number of identifiable ones. One item of interest not discussed at any length above is the Iceman's net, an object that is used to trap spirits in several shamanistic cultures, but in this context the net's function would seem to be entirely practical - unless, of course, the Iceman was engaged in ritual activity of a kind unfamiliar to the modern scholar, which is always a possibility, given that we know so little about Neolithic magic and ritual.

And this is the real issue here. We will never know, unless dramatic new evidence comes to light, what the Iceman had in mind. Forensic archaeology can tell us how old he was, the state of his health, how he was treated for his ailments, how he died, and how long ago; we know what he was wearing, and what he was carrying; we can deduce the season of his death, from pollen and grains caught in his clothing. That is everything the available evidence can tell us, and it is actually a great deal; but it tells us nothing of motive, purpose, or personality. What is more, there is much that is fragmentary or unidentifiable - and much that may have been lost or destroyed by glacial action. The Iceman may indeed have been a farmer or herdsman, perhaps a warrior or minor chieftain, maybe even a shaman. Spindler's sweeping generalisations, favoured theories, and perfunctory dismissals do nothing to advance our understanding and knowledge of the Iceman, or to promote public confidence in archaeology. It is all very well to refuse to speculate beyond the available evidence - yet that is precisely what Spindler does where his own fancies are concerned. Like the rest of us, he cannot resist the temptation, but it is apparent that he believes his own speculations to carry much more weight than those of lesser mortals.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.25 November 1995.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw / bobtrubs@gmtnet.co.uk

Created April 1996
Last updated: 20th April 1996