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Alpine ice man takes revenge from beyond the grace

Now the ancient shaman has claimed six lives! Or has he? Ruth Elkins pursues the truth...

Konrad Spindler did not believe in curses. The professor of pre- and early history at Innsbruck University was a rational man, believing in cause and effect. He did not believe in spells cast by the ungrateful dead. But last Sunday Professor Spindler died.

Konrad Spindler did not believe in curses. The professor of pre- and early history at Innsbruck University was a rational man, believing in cause and effect. He did not believe in spells cast by the ungrateful dead. But last Sunday Professor Spindler died.

The cause of death was complications arising from multiple sclerosis, but that has not deterred those who claim the professor was the latest victim of Ötzi the Iceman. Ötzi is dead too, of course: he is one of the oldest and best preserved corpses in the world. Since his tattooed body was discovered in 1991 on the Austria-Italy border, it is said that Ötzi has steadily taken revenge on those who disturbed him in his glacial grave, somehow causing them to die in mysterious circumstances. So is there really a curse of the ice mummy? And if so, who's next?

On 19 September 1991, Helmut Simon was out walking with his wife, Erika. The couple from Nuremberg, southern Germany, were hiking close to the Hauslabjoch Pass when they suddenly noticed a head and shoulder poking out of the ice. It was the body of a perfectly preserved warrior, complete with fur robes, leather shoes and a bow and arrow. The Simons had discovered a Bronze Age man whose body had lain almost perfectly preserved in the ice for 5,300 years. Historians said the find was hugely significant. The world was intrigued.

At first scientists said that Ötzi, a name taken from the Ötztal Alps where he was found, had "frozen peacefully to death". Later, though, a more gruesome truth became clear. Ötzi (thought to be aged around 46) had likely been fleeing. His death had been an agonising and violent one. He had been shot in the shoulder with an arrow, and had the blood of four different people on his body.

Then came reports that Ötzi's exhumation had been haphazard, violent and chaotic; he had been found with magic mushrooms in his purse and was protected by magic charms. Suggesting that he was an ancient shaman, more spiritually inclined commentators started saying that Ötzi was angry at being moved and there was a curse. Ötzi would take his revenge.

Helmut Simon wasn't afraid. He was fond of the shrivelled corpse and called Ötzi his "third son". Proudly, he gave talks to clubs about his find, saying "the gods had guided him to the Iceman". But later, when he failed to receive compensation for his priceless find, Mr Simon became bitter and angry. Last October, aged 67, he left to walk in the mountains where he had found Ötzi. He was alone, and not carrying a tent. He never returned. His body was found three weeks later. He had fallen 300ft to his death into a crevasse. There was, said the German magazine Science, a "gruesome irony" in the similarity between his death and that of the 53-century-old man who had made him famous, if not rich.

Simon was not the first of the "Ötzi followers" to die, however. That had been Dr Rainer Henn, the forensic expert who placed the cadaver in a body bag with his bare hands. The 64-year-old was on his way to give a talk on Ötzi, a year after the find, when his car crashed and he was killed.

The next to go was Kurt Fritz, 52, who led Dr Henn to the Iceman's glacial tomb. After the discovery he, too, reaped the financial rewards of his Ötzi connection, organising tours to the Iceman's burial site. He died in a freak avalanche in 1993. Mr Fritz, a highly experienced climber, was the only one of his group to die.

Last year there was news of another victim. Rainer Hölzl, 47, had filmed Ötzi's discovery exclusively for Austrian state TV. Soon after doing so he developed a brain tumour which killed him. Then, just as Helmut Simon was buried, there was a fifth Ötzi death. Dieter Warnecke, 45, who had co-ordinated the search for Mr Simon, had reportedly collapsed with a heart attack within an hour of the coffin being lowered into the ground.

At the small South Tyrolean Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, where Ötzi lies, naked and refrigerated behind 8cm-thick bulletproof glass, they are well aware of the curse story. "In 14 years since Ötzi was discovered, there have been six deaths," says Katharina Hersel. "More than 150 scientists have come into contact with the mummy and most of them are absolutely fine and living to a ripe old age."

Any statistician will say the Ötzi deaths appear unrelated and normal. MS is a degenerative though not fatal condition which has a different effect on each patient. Professor Spindler lived almost 90 per cent of the Austrian male's expected lifespan, a normal prognosis for an MS sufferer. Many die in car crashes, as Dr Henn did. Likewise, brain tumours remain a fact of life.

Mr Simon's case was unusual: Austrian mountain rescue services say only one or two people die each year after being caught in bad weather, and admit the blizzard was rare for that time of year. Nevertheless, he had wandered off the track. As one expert puts it: "Do that and the mountains will punish you."

Professor Spindler believed the Ötzi curse to be as much hype as that supposed to be on the tomb of Tutankhamen after it was opened in 1922. The main financier of the dig died within weeks, but the 25 people exposed to the tomb lived to an average age of 71.

The story also brings in huge profits. Almost 250,000 curious visitors visit Ötzi each year, and the museum takes £2.6m in ticket sales.

On one of many websites dedicated to Ötzi, I find a quiet warning: "Curses still work whether you believe in them or not." Another offers advice: "As long as you respect the deceased all will be well." Konrad Spindler was only too happy to joke about whether he'd be Ötzi's next victim. The news of his death is perhaps just enough to make even the most rational a little nervous.