5,300 years ago, someone shot a man with an arrow on a high Alpine ridge near the modern Italian-Austrian border. Thousands of years after his death, a group of hikers found the victim’s mummified body emerging from a melting glacier. Today, we know the man as Ötzi, and archaeologists have spent the last 28 years studying the wealth of information about Copper Age life Ötzi brought with him into the present. Studies have examined his genome, his skeleton, his last meals, his clothes, and the microbes that lived in his gut. Now, a new study of the chert tools he carried reveals details of his lifestyle, his last days, and the trade networks that linked far-flung Alpine communities.
Archaeologist Ursula Wierer of the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio in Florence, Italy, and her colleagues studied the surfaces of the tools under high-power microscopes. Separately, they made CT scans to better understand the tools’ shape and structure in places where the surface couldn’t be seen, such as where blade hafts were covered by wooden handles. They also compared microscopic images of the tools with a library of chert collected from around the region to learn where and how the equipment of Copper Age hunters like Ötzi was made.
Tools of the trade
Ötzi probably hailed from the lower Vinschgau Valley, one or two days’ walk from the slopes of the Alpine ridge where he died, according to isotopic analysis of his remains and the plant species that contributed to his tools and other equipment. 5,300 years ago, the Vinschgau was home to farmers and pastoralists who were just beginning to frequent the high mountain passes for the first time since the Mesolithic.
“We cannot say for sure which was the main reason, but hunting played surely some role: Copper Age findings on high altitudes are not seldom represented by arrowheads, weapons typically used for hunting,” Wierer told Ars. Trade may also have drawn people into the mountains, but so far there’s no clear archaeological evidence to support that.
On his final venture into the mountains, Ötzi carried a small, well-worn (but well-maintained) kit of stone tools: a dagger, an end-scraper for working hides and wood, a borer, a sharp stone flake used for cutting plants, and a pair of arrowheads. It’s clearly the toolkit of a man used to making do with limited resources and making things last—Ötzi had used his tools until they were nearly worn out.
Microscopic analysis of marks on the tools—including the scratches, polishes, and nicks from everyday use, as well as the flakes and chips of flintknapping—revealed that Ötzi’s tools had been freshly sharpened and retouched, but most still bore the marks of a lifetime of hard use. Nearly all of them had been retouched before, several times in some cases, and a few of them didn’t even have enough material left for another resharpening. Some, like the end-scraper and the dagger, were already quite a bit smaller than they’d been originally, thanks to material removed by repeated sharpenings and retouchings.
Make do and mend
Ötzi was competent enough at stone tool maintenance; microscopic analysis of the marks left by his retouching shows a respectable amount of control over pressure, angle, and depth. But the marks left over from the original manufacture of the endscraper and the arrowheads show much finer control, worthy of an expert flintknapper, which means it’s likely that Ötzi didn’t make his own tools.
Archaeologists think that in Copper Age Europe, manufacturing tools like daggers and arrowheads was the work of expert specialists, but most adults knew how to retouch or resharpen a blade with a reasonable amount of skill. It’s the Copper Age equivalent of not being able to build a car in your garage but knowing how to do some basic repairs.
“It is most likely that the ordinary maintenance of personal working tools and weapons could be done by the owner, especially for activities practiced outside the villages, such as hunting or working in the fields,” said Wierer. For that purpose, Ötzi carried an antler retoucher—an antler spike with the point end driven deep into the center of a wooden handle. And like his tools, it was worn and damaged from long use.
An interrupted project
Wierer and her colleagues’ analysis also showed that the retouching work was still fairly fresh when Ötzi died; aside from some signs that he’d used his dagger to cut some soft meat or hide, no use marks overlie the flaking marks on his tools. And the unfinished arrows in his quiver, along with a yew blank for a bow, indicate that he had more work in progress when he died.
So there he was, just trying to get some work done, when someone interrupted in a violent way. His hand bears a stab wound between the right thumb and forefinger, probably obtained while defending himself in a fight, which would have made the hand difficult or impossible to work with. That was a big problem, as the angle of the working marks on most of his tools indicate that Otzi was right-handed. His antler retoucher, for instance, bore the scars of striking chert at an oblique angle in the direction a right-handed flintknapper would use.
So sometime between retouching and resharpening his tools and finishing his bow and arrows, someone attacked Ötzi, kicking off a hectic last couple of days. From pollen in his gut contents, we know he ate meals at several different altitudes over the course of that couple of days, so it’s clear that he descended to a lower altitude at least once before climbing back onto the high slopes, but it’s hard to reconstruct what order those events happened in.
Some archaeologists think those last couple of days may have seen a running series of conflicts, although it’s hard to say whether they were part of a group or just individual encounters in the remote hills.
When in doubt, improvise
That may explain why Ötzi—who would have relied on arrows for both hunting and self-defense—found himself so high in the mountains with only two finished arrows and no stone arrowheads. “Evidently Ötzi had not had any access to chert for quite some time, which must have been problematic during his last hectic days, preventing him from repairing and integrating his weapons, in particular his arrows,” wrote Wierer and her colleagues. He’d picked up some antler pieces at some point, perhaps intending to make do with those.
Making do seems to have been something else Ötzi was fairly good at. The bases of his end-scraper and borer both show signs of having been struck against pyrite or marcusite to make sparks—the edges of the chert are rounded and crushed, and there are traces of dark brown powder, probably either marcusite or pyrite, on the base of the borer.
And he seems to have used one of the arrowheads to cut plants, which left striations and glossy polished patches called “sickle gloss” on the long edge of the arrowhead. This happened after its resharpening—so maybe in his last couple of days of life. That’s a good way to damage arrowheads, which would have been difficult to repair or replace in the field, but maybe that didn’t matter so much to Ötzi because he intended to make more. But he never got the chance.
No hardware stores in the Copper Age
Ötzi was just one guy up in the hills with a collection of well-worn tools, but he was a small node in a much wider trade network. Wierer and her colleagues compared the chert in Ötzi’s tools to known chert samples from around the Alps and found that it came from several different places in the region. And the styles of the tools reflect a mixture of influences. This, as Wierer and her colleagues wrote, “will come as no surprise in the toolkit of a man who lived in a territory where trans-Alpine contacts would have been of great importance.”
Ötzi’s endscraper had begun its life as a knife for cutting plants, in a style that would have been more at home among the lake-dwelling Horgen culture of Switzerland and southern Germany. At some point, he had reworked the blade into an endscraper, which was a common way of repurposing a worn-out Horgen knife. On the other hand, his arrowheads look more Italian—one was of a shape and style common in northern Italy, while the other was a bit more unusual and probably represents a local style, perhaps from Ötzi’s home in the Vinschgau.
That mix of styles isn’t surprising; Ötzi’s home in the Vinschgau is right between the Po River and the eastern lakes of Switzerland, so he probably had dealings with traders from both areas. That likely means that Otzi picked his toolkit up one item at a time, as a need or an opportunity arose, and all of those places and influences coming together in one mountain man’s toolkit points to far-flung networks of trade in worked stone and raw material.