The Final Hours of the Iceman’s Tools

A showcase reflects a reconstruction of Ötzi’s skull, center, and his body at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.
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Credit...Dmitry kostyukov for The New York Times

In 1991, scientists in the Italian Alps came across a frozen, caramel-colored corpse face down in the melting ice. They named him Ötzi, or the Iceman. And since that time, researchers have been learning more and more about the Iceman’s life in the Copper Age in Europe some 5,300 years ago.

The latest findings, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, are focused on the tools he carried with him. A small dagger, a couple of arrowheads and a few other prehistoric possessions made of stone, wood and deer antler, provide insight into their owner’s mysterious final days before he was shot with an arrow and died.

Ursula Wierer, an archaeologist from the provincial Department of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape in Florence, Italy, used high-power microscopes and a CT scanner to examine Ötzi’s dagger and arrowheads. Other items in his ancient tool kit included a small, sharp flakefor cutting reeds; an oval-shaped stone called an end-scraper; a jagged-looking rock used for making holes in leather and wood called a borer; and a wooden block with a deer’s antler called a retoucher.

“He cared about his tools,” said Dr. Wierer, adding that many showed signs of being resharpened or repaired.

All of the items had been recovered in the glacier gully near Ötzi’s body. They included a quiver containing just two arrowheads and a dozen unfinished arrow shafts, several antler points and a bundle of sinew, or animal tendons. Ötzi must have been in some sort of rush, said Dr. Wierer, as he did not have the time to construct a working bow or complete his other dozen arrowheads before his death. She thinks that he could have finished that task over the course of several hours if he had wanted.

Ötzi’s dagger was unusually small with a blade that was barely a couple of inches long. Its tip was also broken, so it lacked a sharp point. The blade was made of a hard, dark rock called chert that is similar to flint. To sharpen it, Ötzi would have had to apply pressure and flake off its edges, rather than scrape it against another rock.

The chert that Otzi used was mined from three different areas, which were as far as 40 miles away, Dr. Wierer said. And in his final moments, the Iceman ran out of chert to fix his tools.

The team also analyzed the wooden retoucher, which had a deer’s antler stuck inside it. This tool was used to sharpen the stone tools by flaking off new sharp edges. The shape of the end-scraper, a long-rounded stone most likely used to cut plants and strip animal hide, suggested that it was used by someone who was right-handed. It had been recently sharpened, based on its glossy appearance, Dr. Wierer concluded.

“It’s really surprising how many re-sharpenings and how many modifications we can see on this tool,” she said. “The Iceman did a last re-sharpening and perhaps wanted to use it again, but there was no time.”

Researchers have learned a lot about Ötzi, including his dapper wardrobe, stomach parasites, and how he may have died. The new findings add just a touch more detail to the attempts to reconstruct his final itinerary.

About 33 hours before he died, the 46-year-old Ötzi ate a meal in the mountains. Then, in the next nine hours before death, he descended the mountain, sharpened his end-scraper and borer and probably worked on his bow and arrow shafts.

A little while later, he got into a skirmish and was stabbed on his right hand. Some 12 hours before he died, he ate another meal in a valley, and then climbed nearly two miles up the mountain again, which was a hike of about a day or two away from his community. Five or four hours before death, he had a third meal and perhaps a little later a fourth. Then an arrow shot by a Southern Alpine archer struck the Iceman from behind, shattering his scapula and severing an artery.

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