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Ötzi’s Ancient Axe is from Tuscany, Giving Firm Evidence of Neolithic Travel and Trade

Ötzi’s Ancient Axe is from Tuscany, Giving Firm Evidence of Neolithic Travel and Trade

Scientists have officially verified that copper used to make Otzi the Iceman’s axe blade did not come from the Alpine region as was initially suggested, but instead it came from southern Tuscany in Italy.

Scientists Verify that Copper Axe Comes from Tuscany

It’s no secret that from the day Ötzi the Iceman – a 5,300-year-old well-preserved mummy – was discovered in the Austrian Alps on 19th September 1991, he has not ceased to fascinate scientists from all over the world. No other corpse has been more thoroughly investigated and that’s a plain fact. As the Archaeology News Network recently reported , it’s now officially verified that the copper axe that was discovered alongside other items next to the Iceman did not come from the Alpine region as had initially been supposed, but instead it came from southern Tuscany in Italy. The chemical examination was conducted at the University of Padua using a very small sample of material recovered from the blade, along with isotope analysis in collaboration with the University of Berne.

The Iceman hand axe. It is the oldest axe found complete of the copper blade, hide strips, birch tar, and handle made of yew wood.

The Iceman hand axe. It is the oldest axe found complete of the copper blade, hide strips, birch tar, and handle made of yew wood. ( South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology )

The results published on the 6 th of July in the scientific journal PLOS ONE , left no doubt that the metal in Ötzi’s copper blade came from Tuscan deposits. According to experts, copper from southern Tuscany is easily identified and distinguished from that of all other deposits within Europe and the Mediterranean region due to the rare lead-isotope variation within its lead content. This unique composition was also spotted unaltered in Ötzi’s axe.

Dr. Gilberto Artioli’s Original Results

As previously reported in Ancient Origins , Dr. Gilberto Artioli's archaeo-metallurgy research group at the University of Padua discovered that the metal had been obtained from ore mined in South Tuscany. In order to determine its origin, Italian scientists took a tiny sample from the blade and compared the proportion of lead isotope – a kind of "finger print" of the ore deposits, which remains unchanged in any objects subsequently made from the ore – with the corresponding data from numerous mineral deposits in Europe and the entire Mediterranean region.

The Iceman Axe Blade. a) It is the oldest axe found complete with the copper blade, hide strips, birch tar, and handle made of yew wood, so that it has been carefully dated by radiocarbon methods

The Iceman Axe Blade. a) It is the oldest axe found complete with the copper blade, hide strips, birch tar, and handle made of yew wood, so that it has been carefully dated by radiocarbon methods (figure from www.iceman.it, modified) b) Casting defects and deformation in the talon of the copper blade. The microsample here analyzed was extracted from the major cavity. (Image: Gilberto Artioli et al )

The result pointed unequivocally to South Tuscany. Now that the original results are officially confirmed, this new evidence challenges researchers to answer some really interesting questions. Was Ötzi a trader travelling possibly as far as the area around today's Florence? What was the nature of the trading and cultural links with the south in those days? Did the exchange of goods also involve movements of the population? That is to say, did people from the south venture into the Alpine region and vice versa?

New Information Revealed about the Copper Age

What appears to be even more reassuring about the firm conclusions of this research project, is that the origin of the Tuscan copper is consistent with the latest research findings of Dr. Gilberto Artioli’s archaeo-metallurgy research. This could shed new light on the spread of this material in Europe and on the socioeconomic ties between humans during the Copper Age. The new information confirms a considerable connection between the late Neolithic people in Central Italy (Rinaldone culture) and those to the north of the Apennines (Spilamberto, Remedello), going further to the populations of the southern arc of the Alps where the Iceman was found, as Archaeology News Network reports .

The mountain area where the mummy of Ötzi was found (marked by red dot)

The mountain area where the mummy of Ötzi was found (marked by red dot) ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

However, several questions remain unanswered. No one can answer with certainty if the copper was traded as raw material or as ready-crafted items such as the axe blade, since neither the chemical analysis nor the isotope data could reveal such information. General comparisons with axe blades from Central Italy though indicate that Ötzi might not have obtained the raw copper material for himself, but acquired the blade already crafted.

Experts are being optimistic that the new findings will now assist further archaeological research projects destined to trace the spread as well as the trade routes of Neolithic axes, from a metallurgical point of view, from Central Italy to the Alpine area. Although the trip from Italy to Austria can be pretty brief these day, such movement would have been quite an undertaking over five millennia ago, when the only form of transport a man had was his legs.

Top image: Ötzi Memorial, Austria ( GFDL), Ötzi Axe ( South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology ), Ötzi Reconstruction ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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