BOOK REVIEW / The hot news from an ice-cold Neolithic Joe: 'The Man in the Ice' - Konrad Spindler translated by Ewald Osers: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 18.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
HAS SO distinguished a visitor ever been greeted so uncivilly in modern times? He arrived two years ago in a style to make the sternest Nordic mythologist swoon, emerging high on a mountain from a tomb of ice at the end of a journey 5,000 years long. Yet he was extracted from his icy fastness with all the finesse with which one scrapes a burnt fry-up off the bottom of a pan. He was poked, he was tugged, his belongings were trampled, and his left buttock was chiselled off with a power tool.

Proper procedures were ignored not only in respect of archaeology, but also of international relations. After the Austrian authorities' belated realisation that the body in the ice was not that of some unfortunate modern alpinist came the realisation that it had fetched up on what was now the Italian side of the border. The principle of 'finders keepers' eventually prevailed, to the evident satisfaction of Dr Konrad Spindler, the leader of the scientific investigation.

Throughout most of this book, however, it is actually rather difficult to divine Dr Spindler's feelings. The only vehemence appears in his dismissal of claims that the whole thing was a fraud. Were that the case, it would make the Piltdown fraud look like a Sunday afternoon prank, since it would entail the insertion of an Egyptian mummy and a collection of Neolithic artefacts, many of them perishable, into a remote ice sheet not far short of a helicopter's operational ceiling.

The fraud allegation was only the nastiest of a host of colourful stories that grew up around the body, which came to be known as Otzi, after the Otztaler Alps in which it was found. The tone of Spindler's book arises from the fact that Otzi is a dual phenomenon, half a scientific sensation and half a cultural craze. The Man in the Ice is an attempt to assert the authority of science over popular culture, by producing a popular yet authoritative scientific account of the story.

In this it succeeds. The style is free of baggage, the scientific detail quite compulsive. Not all of this is for admirable reasons: there is plenty here for pathology enthusiasts, such as the description of 'grave wax', a phenomenon in which nature

produces its own waxworks.

In spite of the havoc of the recovery, an extensive reconstruction has been possible. Otzi now stands again, in the artist's impressions, 5ft 3in tall in his grass-stuffed boots, his fur leggings hung from a suspender belt, his grass cloak and fur cap. Eventually, the image of his face will be reconstructed, too.

As if to compensate for the indignities that he suffered on his arrival in the 20th century, various parties have been keen to promote him to some exotic station, such as shaman, priest or outlaw. Spindler sensibly concludes that Otzi was just an ordinary Neolithic Joe, probably a herdsman. He does, however, allow himself to suggest a scenario in which the Iceman fled a massacre by raiders, escaping along a herding route, but succumbed to the cold.

One matter on which Spindler is emphatic is that, despite evidence of assault, Otzi met his end with his genitals intact. These flattened and emptied remnants have been the subject of extraordinary attentions. It was claimed that Otzi had been castrated, and also that sperm had been found in his anus. Though Spindler doesn't mention it, there have been reports of women from several countries asking for donations of Otzi's own vital fluids, and there would doubtless have been many more if he had emerged during the heyday of Aryan and Celtic racial mythology.

Ancient humans often tell us more about our own culture than about theirs, and the analysis of the cultural half of the Otzi phenomenon remains to be written. But in this case, the facts are both numerous and extraordinary enough in themselves.