Retreating ice hazard to frozen finds

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Wednesday, 16 April, 2008 - 23:00

According to Richard Owens in The Times (April 17, 2008), prehistoric treasures unearthed in the Alps as melting glaciers recede are under threat from looters who are removing many of them.Such is the concern for the newly revealed objects - which include weapons, clothing and tools - that a task force of archaeologists, anthropologists, mountain climbers and Alpine rescue teams has been formed in an attempt to salvage them.Franco Nicolis, an archaeologist from Trento, said that mountain climbers and hikers would be asked to report any finds to the task force rather than removing them.The most spectacular Alpine find so far is Oetzi the Iceman, also known as Similaun Man or ‘Frozen Fritz’ - the well-preserved, mummified body of a hunter or shepherd in his forties, who died in about 3300BC. He was found on the Schnalstal glacier in the ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy in 1991.More recent finds include prehistoric bronze arrowheads, clothing and shoes at Schnidejoch in the Swiss Alps and Roman and mediaeval treasures found at Vedrete di Riete and Vioz in the Italian Alps.Oetzi, who was found by two German hikers, was at first taken to Innsbruck in Austria but it was later proved that the body had been found just inside Italian territory.   In 1998 the body was moved to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where it is displayed under controlled conditions.Archaeologists say that errors were made, which ‘must not be repeated’ as more discoveries are made. Oetzi was dug out with ice-axes and hikers were allowed to touch the corpse and take tools and fragments of clothing as souvenirs.It is clear that careful study of such finds could produce priceless information. Analysis of pollen and tooth enamel in the remains of Oetzi indicate that he lived in mountain valleys 50km (31 miles) north of Bolzano.   One theory is that he was a mountain shepherd. He wore a cloak of woven grass, a vest, leggings and a loincloth made of leather, and waterproof shoes made of bearskin and deer hide. His pouch contained a flint and dried fungus to be used as tinder and a copper axe. A flint knife and 14 bone-tipped arrows were found nearby.Archaeologist Professor Nicolis said it was vital that scientists moved quickly to conserve such objects, observing that if Oetzi had been found ‘even a few days later than he was’ the damage to the remains would have been irreparable.