The Coldest Cold Case

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at

I just returned from a hiking adventure in the Dolomite Mountains of northeastern Italy and while resting my rickety knees in the town of Bolzano, I became intrigued by an old murder.

In September 1991, a couple of German hikers stumbled upon the frozen remains of a human body in a melting glacier on the border between Italy and Austria.  They notified the authorities and the next day police attempted to free the corpse from the ice with pneumatic drills and ice axes, but it was stuck fast.  After three days, they managed to chisel him free and sent the body to Innsbruck to be autopsied.

jeanne-matthews-otzi-the-iceman-2The deceased was male, 45-to-50 years old, five-foot-five, with brown eyes, long hair, a full beard, and (like me) bad knees.  He carried no ID, but was well dressed, possibly of Corsican or Sardinian ethnicity. The medical examiners found an arrowhead lodged in his left shoulder and his skull had been fractured.  It was murder, no doubt about it.  But to the experts’ dismay, the victim had been encased in ice for approximately 5,300 years.  Otzi the Iceman, as he became known, gives fresh meaning to the phrase “cold case” and no murder in the history of mankind has involved so many investigators from so many different branches of science.

Soon after the murder, snow fell and covered the deceased, wicking out the moisture and creating a “wet mummy.”  Eventually ice formed around the body and prevented any further deterioration.  As a result, Otzi’s perfectly preserved organs have provided researchers with amazing insights into life in the late Stone Age.  I viewed the mummy in his hermetically sealed, humidity controlled, refrigerated chamber at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.  He’s not pretty, but he could supply C.S.I. with many seasons of mysteries.

jeanne-matthews-otzi-the-iceman-last-meal        jeanne-matthews-otzi-the-iceman-crime-scene

Nobody knows what line of work Otzi was in.  Judging from his personal effects, he might have been a wealthy merchant or trader, or even a shaman.  Robbery has been ruled out as the motive for murder.  His belongings – including a pair of fine bearskin shoes, a bundle of herbs, a quiver full of arrow shafts, and a rather magnificent copper axe – were left behind at the crime scene.  The existence of the axe surprised archaeologists, who had no idea that copper tools were being forged five thousand years ago.  The high level of arsenic in Otzi’s hair and fingernails suggest that he had been breathing fumes from the smelting process, but no other copper artifacts were discovered in the area.  Maybe the locals feared that Otzi was a sorcerer and his magic herbs and gleaming copper axe posed some supernatural danger.

jeanne-matthews-otzi-the-icemanHe had sixty-one tattoos made by cutting the skin and inserting charcoal.  The markings could have symbolized rank or religious belief, but they coincide with acupuncture points.  This suggests he may have possessed some arcane knowledge of healing two thousand years before the Chinese started practicing acupuncture for pain relief.

Otzi knew his killer.  An hour before his death, he was sitting down to a hearty meal of ibex and bread, prepared and served by a person or persons unknown.  Apparently, he felt safe, although recent cuts and bruises indicate that he had been in a bloody fight twenty-four hours earlier.  Forensics experts have identified DNA from four separate individuals on his gear – one sample on his knife, one on his coat, and two on the same arrowhead.  They speculate that he had killed one person with that arrowhead, then dug it out and re-used it to kill a second person.

Where the Bones are BuriedIn the heat of battle, he couldn’t have had time to pause and perform surgery to extract an arrowhead, so we have to assume the first killing had occurred in an earlier encounter.  In any event, whether from custom or revenge, Otzi’s murderer rolled him onto his stomach before rigor mortis set in and tried to remove the arrowhead he’d shot into his back.  Either the job was too messy or something scared him off.  He left the arrowhead, but took the shaft.  Shafts often carried distinctive markings that could identify the archer in the same way that modern ballistics can link a bullet to a particular gun.  Maybe he was trying to cover up the murder.

It’s interesting to imagine what happened on the mountain all those years ago.  Did Otzi get the rough justice he deserved?  Did his murderer get away with his crime?  Did people gather around the campfire and tell the story?

Scientists caution us not to make too much of the fact that seven people involved in the discovery and research have died violent deaths.  I’ve read nothing about the fate of those who have blogged about Otzi.  I’m sure they’re all alive and well.  There’s no such thing as the curse of the mummy, right?

12 thoughts on “The Coldest Cold Case

  1. Fascinating. Most intriguing to me (besides the unexplained modern deaths of those involved in his discovery) is that the DNA lasted so long and that there was enough material surviving to test. Perhaps some other hapless hikers will discover his murderer–or his victim from the prior fight.


    • Most fascinating to my husband and fellow hiker was the fact that Austrai and Italy engaged in a legal fight over ownership of the body and the hikers who discovered Otzi, sued the governments asking for a monetary reward.


  2. Very interesting blog. Seven investigators died violent deaths and we shouldn’t make much of that? That really sounds strange. One, maybe two, but seven seems awfully strange unless they lived in a war zone.


  3. I just saw that Nova episode. Most informative and most fascinating especially the beautifully made replica of the corpse by an American artist to be displayed in a museum.


  4. I wonder if the killer tried to take the arrowhead, not to conceal anything, but just because it was valuable. I imagine they weren’t that easy to make, and were definitely important to survival (for hunting and protection).


    • You may be right. Chris Rock does a comedy routine in which he claims there would be no accidental shooting victims if bullets cost $5,000 each. Shooters would take extremely careful aim and if a bullet went astray, they would try to dig it out.


  5. This is extremely interesting. Goodness, I’d never imagine someone that far back in our history would have any form of a “tattoo.” This is a case of truly “cold” case in every way possible. Good story. Good hook.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.