Discovering the Iceman:
What Was It Like to Find a 5,300-Year-Old Mummy?

by Shelley Tanaka, Laurie McGaw,
48 pages,
ISBN: 0590249517

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Children`s Books
by Peter Bain

This is the story of a man who lived 5,300 years ago. When his almost perfectly preserved remains were discovered in a glacier in the Alps, scientists gained a unique opportunity to study pre-Bronze-Age civilization. Unlike most archaeological finds of human remains, the Iceman was found where he died, going about his daily life: he had not been prepared for burial. Instead, the mountain air froze and dehydrated his body, then a glacier covered the hollow he lay in, preserving his corpse and his tools and belongings for thousands of years. He was found in 1991 by hikers, with his copper axe, half-finished arrows, shoes, birch-bark canisters, and other artefacts beside him.

The book is divided into three sections, all told in a narrative style. First is the story of his discovery by the hikers, Erika and Helmut Simon. Returning from a climb to the peak of a mountain on the Austrian-Italian border, the Simons detoured from the marked route. Noticing something that resembled a doll, they looked closer and found it was a corpse. Believed at first to be a hiker buried in an avalanche, it was extracted from the ice and removed to the University of Innsbruck where an archaeologist declared it to be from the Bronze Age. Carbon dating revised that estimate to over a thousand years earlier, five centuries before the building of the first pyramids. In spite of the crude way the body and artefacts were collected and the trampling of the site by visitors, the Iceman's fur hat, quiver, shoes (stuffed with grass for warmth), and food pouch (still containing berries) were recovered and continue to provide clues to Stone Age civilization.

The second section is a fictional account of the Iceman's last few days. Not only does the author turn a mummified corpse into a real person, she tells us about the way the people lived, what they ate and hunted, how they made and used their tools, and how they died. Describing his life in a Stone Age village and his trip into the mountains, Tanaka describes the man's belongings, such as the strip of birch fungus (a traditional remedy), his birch-bark canister which held embers to start a fire, and the tattoos on his skin (a folk cure for sore joints).

The book ends with the results of the examination of the Iceman's body and his belongings. Tanaka also presents here various difficulties facing the scientists studying a corpse that has lasted five thousand years but is now decaying. The body and artefacts were found and recovered by Austrians, but the site of the discovery is in Italy: Whose is it? And who will pay the $10,000 a month to preserve the body? Who can examine the Iceman, when he can come out of the freezer for only thirty minutes at a time, each time doing irreparable harm?

The book is heavily illustrated with colour photographs and drawings. Numerous sidebars and insets explain such matters as carbon-14 dating and glacier formation in a clear and simple yet accurate fashion. The narrative style carries the five-to-ten-year old reader along, while conveying a large amount of factual information. This is both a good learning book and a good story. l

Peter Bain is a design engineer with a telecommunications research and development organization in Ottawa. He has two children.


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