Country Matters: Terrified traveller frozen in time

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HIS ARROWS were cut from shoots of Viburnum lantana, the large shrub commonly known as the wayfaring tree. Of all the astonishing facts about the Iceman - the Neolithic human whose body was discovered emerging from a glacier in the Alps in 1991 - none hit me harder than this, for as a boy I myself used to seek out that shrub for arrow- shafts. When I read that the same wood had been first choice in the Stone Age, I suddenly felt an affinity with the lone hunter-gatherer who died 5,000 years ago.

The preservation of his body was in itself a miracle: so efficiently did the glacier freeze him that specialists have been able to deduce an amazing amount about his physical condition - and now the leader of the scientific investigation, Dr Konrad Spindler, has produced a gripping account of their discoveries.*

The Iceman was between 35 and 40 years old, stood 5ft 3in tall, and weighed about eight stone. On his back, legs and feet he had blue tattoos, mostly linear, some in the form of crosses. His teeth, though worn down by chewing coarse food, were entirely free from caries, the decay caused by modern diets.

Several months before his death he had broken five ribs on his left side. These had healed satisfactorily, but then, in a different attack or accident, he had suffered four fractures in his right ribs. When he went to sleep for the last time, he lay down on his left side, probably because that was the most comfortable, and it seems that during the night, overcome by exhaustion, he froze to death.

Heavy snow must then have covered him - otherwise, his bones would have been picked clean by scavenging birds - and his body survived intact because his final resting-place was in a deep rock cleft. Gradually, the blanket of snow turned to ice, entombing him, and for 50 centuries the glacier ground its way forward over the top of the gulley, leaving him and his immediate surroundings almost unmoved.

Yet even more fascinating than his physical remains are the artefacts that were found with him. Not only do they give a vivid glimpse of what the world was like before Homo sapiens began to wreck his environment, but they also contain disquieting hints about the Iceman's plight before he died.

It goes without saying that everything he had with him was home-made, for no centres of manufacturing then existed, and all his equipment derived directly from natural materials. His clothes were made of deer skins - square patches of hide neatly sewn together with thread twisted from animal sinews. He wore a cone-shaped fur cap with a chin-strap, a cape reaching to his knees, and leggings like North American chaps. His garments were far from new, and showed signs of having been used for some time: patches were rubbed bare, and seams that had split had been crudely cobbled together with grass thread.

On top of the cape he wore a grass cloak, plaited from stems more then three feet long. No doubt this acted as thatch, throwing off rain and snow: it must also have made a serviceable mattress, and probably it was used as a portable hide, making the hunter almost invisible as long as he kept still. His shoes had leather soles and uppers made of grass cords, and were stuffed with more grass as a form of insulation.

In many ways the Iceman was well kitted-out for survival. On his back he carried a pannier or haversack, with a frame made from a U-shaped hazel rod, braced by cross- boards of larch. He also had two cylindrical containers fashioned from birch bark, one of which he had lined with fresh-picked maple leaves and used for transporting live embers.

His tools included an axe with a yew shaft and a copper blade, beautifully fitted together, glued with birch tar and bound with leather thongs. A small knife or dagger, with oak handle and flint blade, travelled in a sheath on his belt, and had a cord of woven grass tied round a notch at the end of the handle, to prevent it from being lost; he also had various spare flints in a belt-pouch, an awl (for sewing) carved from bone, and a small instrument like a pencil stub cut from a lime branch, with a splinter of antler driven into one end, for sharpening and polishing other implements.

Slivers of ibex bone suggest that he carried strips of dried meat as an emergency food reserve, and traces of corn show that he must at some stage have been down in one of the valleys where wheat was grown and threshed. The variety of trees and shrubs which he used - yew, lime, oak, hazel, wayfaring tree and larch for his equipment, elm, spruce, pine and willow for burning - reveals that he moved thousands of feet up and down, between the different environments in which these species grow.

All this suggests efficiency and good organisation, and has led to conjectures that our solitary traveller was a herdsman, on his way to or from the high Alpine pastures in which cattle, sheep and goats spent the summer. The place in which he died was certainly on a route that made such theories plausible. Yet his equipment also exhibited some very odd, not to say sinister, features.

His bow, for instance, was made of yew, and was almost six feet long - but it had never been finished. Much work had been done to shape it, probably with a copper axe-head; yet the wood remained covered with small scallops, and had never been smoothed down. Nor had any notches or holes been cut at the ends for holding a bowstring in position. As a weapon for hunting or self-defence, it was useless.

Similarly, of the 14 arrows found in his quiver, only two had been finished. These were fitted with sharp flint heads and fletching of feathers, glued to the wood with birch- bark tar - but both were broken, and his remaining 12 arrows, all intact, were in an embryonic state, consisting only of shaved-down lengths of viburnum, without heads or tails. Like the bow, they were unusable.

Does this - along with his broken ribs - mean that he was on the run, having recently escaped after some violent incident, and was struggling to re-equip himself in the mountains?

Haunted by the reappearance of a being so unimaginably old, I feel intensely curious about the nature of the world he knew. It is clear that in those days nobody would have spoken, or even thought, about country matters: in Europe all life was rural, since men were not numerous enough to have formed more than a few small settlements. Isolated communities farmed patches of land hacked out of the forests which choked the valleys.

For anyone looking back from our vantage (or disadvantage) point 5,000 years later, and watching the world struggle with the consequences of overpopulation, it is tempting to think of the Iceman's Europe as some sort of Arcadia, free from machines, roads, noise, pollution, taxes, bureaucrats and politicians. Yet I realise full well that in fact his life was tough and short: I suspect that his days were full of fear, and that when he lay dying on that desolate pass, his mind was besieged by terror of the unknown.

*'The Man in the Ice', by Konrad Spindler (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 18.99).