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Art + Science = PaleoArt

Interview with Angelika Fleckinger


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.

Ange­li­ka Fleckinger
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.

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