Interview with Angelika Fleckinger
AN INTERVIEW WITH MUSEUM DIRECTOR ANGELIKA FLECKINGER ABOUT ÖTZI, HIS CONSERVATION, RESEARCH AND COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES.
Ötzi was discovered in the Ötztal Alps in 1991. The museum dedicated to him has been in existence for almost exactly 20 years. Angelika Fleckinger, an archaeologist herself, has overseen the museum since 2005. She commissioned paleo artists Kennis&Kennis, who breathed life into the Iceman and created an astonishingly lifelike sculpture. It now helps visitors imagine Ötzi’s life, approach him emotionally as a person rather than as a research subject.
Ötzi is a cultural asset, a phenomenon that attracts worldwide attention. It’s become an important economic factor for South Tyrol. Many of the 5 million visitors come to Bolzano to see the Iceman. Fleckinger wishes for more space – a new museum? It may well be that Ötzi will have to pack and move his things in the next few years. Certainly, a welcome change for him.
Ms Fleckinger, how much does archaeology come into play in your role as museum director?
The job description of an archaeologist is of course very varied, depending on where you’re currently working. An archaeologist working at a university can focus solely on research; in the field, their attention will shift to heritage preservation; archaeology, for example, is also associated with a lot of bureaucratic, administrative tasks. It’s completely different when you’re lucky as I am and work in an archaeological museum. In addition to business management, creativity and art also play a role here: the art of communicating, i.e. preparing a topic in such a way that one can win over the interest of the public. We’re allowed to communicate something that per se interests an international audience: ‘the Iceman and his tools’.
When ‘Ötzi, the Iceman’ was found, you were still studying archaeology at Innsbruck University. What were your experiences with Ötzi before the museum opened?
Ötzi has been with me for more than half my life. I was a 21-year-old student at the time, and at first followed the discovery through the media. The real ‘wow effect’ kicked in at the beginning of October when, upon entering the university grounds, we thought we’d lost our way: we didn’t recognize the university at the beginning of the semester. Our lecture room was an outpost for journalists who actually stayed there overnight and waited for press conferences. The Institute for Prehistory and Early History was primarily concerned with this topic from this time on and in the following years. I finished my studies there in 1995 and then I started working for the Bolzano Office for Heritage Sites. On 16 January 1998, after their stay in Innsbruck, the mummy and the accompanying tools were transferred to the new Archaeological Museum in Bolzano. I can remember the enormous security effort involved in transport. All hell broke loose in front of the museum as numerous onlookers, public officials, journalists and I waited for something to happen; it was incredibly quiet and suddenly the door opened and Ötzi’s covered corpse was carried in. The first encounter with the dead body was very emotional. From then on, the museum team have become Ötzi’s guardians, his guardians, and we really see this as a great responsibility.
What is the scientific – and plausible – explanation behind the discovery of a 5,000-year-old mummified body in nature? Egyptology knows all about the delicate mummification processes – so can ice be the only factor involved in the mummy’s preservation?
Shortly after the discovery, theories circulated that a mummy from America or Egypt was deposited here to stage this sensational find. These conjectures were quickly brushed aside because the C14 tests determined the body is over 5,000 years old. The genetic assays also showed that he comes from Central Europe and not Egypt. What is special about Ötzi is the fact that a body has been preserved in ice for over 5,000 years. There are other finds of Inuits in Greenland, where bodies have been well preserved, which are much younger but prove that, theoretically, ice works as a conservation method. Ötzi’s an absolute exception compared to the large number of mummies that have survived worldwide because he apparently died at the discovery site, was covered by ice and snow and thus remained there for over 5,000 years. Nothing about him has changed. This is different in Egypt, where the offal is removed, the mummies treated with chemicals and embalmed.
Ötzi is unique in the world. Nevertheless, we’re working on making his discovery a 360-degree experience for museum visitors.
What are the most important scientific findings on Ötzi’s mummified glacier corpse?
Genetics has recently become an important element in research. The scientific possibilities have developed enormously over the past 20 years. Ötzi was diagnosed with heart failure. In addition, Lyme disease and lactose intolerance were detected, and he had brown eyes. The entire data set is accessible online, allowing researchers worldwide to address specific aspects. Many results will be added in the future.
Are there any findings resulting from Ötzi’s research that not only tell us about the life of the glacier mummy, but have also expanded or changed our knowledge of this prehistoric era?
Ötzi was able to open a unique window into the Copper Age – an era that could hardly be imagined archaeologically, especially in South Tyrol. Until Ötzi was found, we didn’t really know how people made shoes, that they wore leggings, that they could tailor a fur coat like the one he wore or that there was a sense of fashion at all. We found 61 tattoos on Ötzi’s body: whoever would have thought that people in Europe tattooed themselves over 5,000 years ago? In the field of genetics, what does Ötzi have to do with us today? In South Tyrol we have the highest concentration of Parkinson’s in Europe and the question arises: do we South Tyroleans have the misfortune that this condition is a genetic predisposition? This is exactly what the research is about.
Do you think that South Tyrol has done enough in terms of marketing the sensation that is ‘Ötzi, the Iceman’, has it already exhausted its potential, or would there still be something it can do?
There’s a lot of support from politicians and the IDM which has positioned South Tyrol on the world map. But there’s a limit, even when it comes to how we present Ötzi. I believe that if we had more space at our disposal, we could attract even more people and bring them to the museum. Because with the number of visitors we currently have, we’ve reached our limits.
You now have a highly professional Ötzi reconstruction. For those laypeople reading this: could you tell us a bit more about it – is it similar to a figure in a wax museum?
Just like in a wax museum, the greatest concern when reconstructing a living replica of the Iceman is to be as faithful as possible to the ‘original’. In 2011 we commissioned the reconstruction from Dutch ‘paleo’ artists Kennis&Kennis. They were given a 3D-print of the skull and the Kennis siblings then reconstructed the soft tissue, face etc. using scientific methods. We know that Ötzi had long hair, dark eyes, had a beard and all these are details which come quite close to the image of the real Ötzi. The Kennis siblings are among the leading paleo artists in Europe. They’re artists and scientists at the same time and we had an enormous number of talks about what Ötzi should look like – the most important approach to the reconstruction was which picture of Ötzi do we convey, how do we portray him? Injured, dying, should he laugh, be aggressive or angry, should he sit or stand? As artists, they went and did their thing, and we only met again when Ötzi’s painting was finished. It was very moving for me and the team to finally meet the ‘living’ Ötzi.
Is it true that the meaning of the tattoos on Ötzi’s body has not yet been researched? Are there any assumptions, however, as to what the 61 tattoos or signs could indicate?
There’s still some disagreement in the scientific community. Most people think that these tattoos are therapeutic measures. Ötzi has 61 signs on his body, bundles of lines and crosses where, according to X‑ray tests, he suffered from pain. Interestingly, where a modern patient would have a lancing pain, Ötzi has a cross; where a modern patient would have a sprain or tension, e.g. the lumbar vertebrae, Ötzi has lines. We’ve ruled out that the tattoos are aesthetic in nature because he or his community would have had the skills to make them look artistic.