Summer holiday Term 7/8
Cycling uphill in early summer through vineyards and orchards in northern Italy, I found the mountains oppressive and the sun too fierce. My knee ached with every turn of the pedals and I had to shout over the constant roar of the mountain river. But my mood lifted after a rest day in the stylish town of Bolzano where I met Ötzi the Iceman in his two very different incarnations.
The first Ötzi – a mummified and shrunken body – was discovered by hikers in 1991 on a mountain glacier close to the Austrian border nearby. We took our turn to peer at it through the glass of a special cell in the museum where it rests like a medieval relic, constantly cooled to prevent decay.
Ötzi’s story has slowly been pieced together. His remains were first thought to belong to a lost climber, but we now know he lived 5000 years ago and died violently one summer up on the glacier. A hand wound showed he’d been in a fight a few days before.
Hours before his death he climbed up from the valley into the mountains followed by his killer, who shot him in the back with an arrow. A revenge attack after the earlier fight? Then came a blow to the head or maybe a fall, and he died quickly from blood loss. His body lay face down on a large flat stone preserved in ice until its accidental discovery all those years later.
We know he was about 45 (an old man for the time), with brown eyes, loose dark wavy hair and a beard. He was not in good shape – his many tattoos were probably an early form of acupuncture for pain relief. His joints were worn, he had some broken bones and signs of a recent chronic illness. Too much time sitting over an open fire had blackened his lungs.
At the end of the exhibition we met the second Ötzi – a reconstruction by the Dutch twins Kennis and Kennis, who make lifelike and authentic models of ancient humans for museums all over Europe. This one was upright, three-dimensional, unexpectedly modern, very human and engaging and a fitting finale to Ötzi’s absorbing story.
Our rest day over, it was time to pedal south. As I looked round at the fertile river valley I saw why Ötzi had caught my imagination. It was more than just cycling in his deerskin-clad footsteps and living off the land. I also have two incarnations. The first was uncomfortable, immobile and contracted, how I used to be. The second is taller, full of life and breath, more open and upright and balanced, more human and ready to move and be in the world.
The second version has only slowly emerged from the first. It’s close to a decade since my initial Alexander Technique lesson started the long process of deep psycho-physical change. Both our stories continue to evolve. Researchers have only recently located Ötzi’s stomach and identified his last meal . A new film imagining his life and death has just been released. I too am revising my story after uncovering a degree of hypermobility I wasn’t aware of. Our next chapters remain to be written.
My knee was still sore and the sun beating down as my bike bumped over the wooden slats on the cycle bridge across the rushing water. I was more optimistic, not just because the day’s ride was downhill. I’ve learned that we’re not fixed and can change. The pace may feel glacial but our stories can develop irrespective of age. We too can thaw out and become more fully human if we allow ourselves the choice and the time.