We rented a tiny car at the Verona airport on a bright, hot morning and drove the A22 Autostrada through the Brenner Pass from Verona to Bolzano.
After Verona, Bolzano—which bills itself as “the gateway to the Dolomites” and is the capital city of the South Tyrol—was like a foreign country. Although everyone could speak Italian, we were just as likely to overhear German conversations, see Austrian-influenced architecture in the old city, and to see beautiful seeded pretzels and Austrian pastries in the bakeries.
Our final destination for the day was Cortina, but we had a reason to stop at Bolzano: a date with Ötzi (the Iceman). Ötzi, the mummified remains of a man who lived 5000 years ago, and whose body was discovered high in the Tyrolean Alps, is cared for by the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the discovery with a special exhibit until January 2013.
Ötzi, himself, rests in a special, environmentally-controlled vault. He’s visible, as he lies on his ice-glazed table, through a small, thick window in the heart of the museum. Viewing him is an eerie experience. He is so utterly, obviously human—his fingers curled as if gripping his bow or a axe handle—but time and the elements have taken a once living person and turned him into what looks like a human-shaped piece of amber: slick, shiny, golden. An object.
This is your first glimpse of Ötzi in the museum and it leaves you feeling a bit torn: fascinated and yet slightly embarrassed to be seeing something so defenselessly private. Like overhearing a conversation about people you know, but not meant for your ears. Is Ötzi a person, or an object? If he’s a person, what gives us the right to line up in a museum to gaze on his naked body? If he’s an object, what connection do we feel to him?
But the body of Ötzi is a seed, or a core, around which an entire leafy life flourished, and the rest of the museum beautifully introduces that life to you, piece by piece. A coat and pair of leggings, made of small patches of goat hide, meticulously pieced together with straight, even, tiny stitches of sinew. Deer-skin shoes, insulated with hay bound by twisted grass “ropes”. A bearskin cap fitted with leather straps to tie under the wearer’s chin. A pouch containing a dried fungus that could be used as portable tinder, and two birch-bark containers in which Ötzi likely carried smoldering embers from camp site to camp site. An axe with a copper head, a dagger, a long bow (unfinished) made of yew, and a quiver full of arrows (only some ready for use, others notched but unfinished). A set of tools for repairing his clothing and equipment, and a kit of fungus and herbs for healing himself (or others?).
And a backpack with a hazel wood frame in which he carried many of the above items, and more. An entire floor of the museum was filled with his possessions.
After having agonized for weeks about what to put in our packs to carry on a four-day hike through the South Tyrolean mountains, the coincidence was not lost on us. Ötzi was as fully human as we are, and acquisitive to boot, although he was infinitely more self-sufficient and prepared than we would ever be. He had places to go, and a never-ending “to do” list (“finish making three arrows this week”). He had friends, and enemies, or perhaps someone who mistook him for game and shot him in the shoulder with a fatal arrow.
We can’t know his real name, or hear his voice. We don’t know his favorite color or food. Did he have family? Could he sing? What made him laugh? Even still, there’s no doubt at all that he was just like us, and that, somehow, is comforting beyond measure.
I was reluctant to leave Ötzi behind, but Cortina and the Dolomites beckoned. On we drove in our little Fiat Panda, loaded with backpacks, boots, pocket knives, food, protective clothing, and everything else we hoped would carry us safely through the mountains.