COLUMN ONE : From the Ice Comes a Mystery : A 4,000-year-old mummy discovered in an Alpine glacier is the stuff of dreams for scientists. In Austria, a team will try to unlock the Iceman's Bronze Age secrets.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

And the Iceman came, bursting with news from the dawn of history. He brings unprecedented excitement and epochal mysteries to a university here that is his new home after 40 centuries.

"This corpse belongs to the whole world," said Prof. Werner Platzer, who is coordinating the study of a 4,000-year-old mummy newly discovered in the protective embrace of an Alpine glacier.

Platzer and the University of Innsbruck are assembling a blue-ribbon team of international scientists to examine the unique find. The mummy is in mint condition. Iceman died with his boots on. His clothes, tools, weapons and supplies, which archeologists date to the Bronze Age, are integral parts of the glacier's extraordinary gift to modern science.

Prof. Konrad Spindler's fax is burning up with requests for information and offers of research assistance. In the department of prehistory and protohistory that Spindler heads at the university, student assistants field phone calls in half a dozen languages. French television is having coffee in the anteroom. Buenos Aires is calling. An Australian team would like a crack at the carbon dating. Italian television has just finished a live transmission: Iceman is Italian, isn't he?

In the hubbub, inquisitive American scientists are, unaccountably, conspicuous by their absence.

"This is a great treasure," said Spindler, who directs the university's mummy project. Iceman is the stuff of dreams for protohistorians (those who deal with the period immediately preceding recorded history), archeologists, anthropologists and students of anatomy, medicine, forensic dentistry and nutrition.

Come along, too, mystery fans: Some provocatively puzzling things about Iceman began to pique curiosities as soon as the thinking of science replaced the shouting of discovery.

Textiles were well-known to Bronze Age weavers. Why did not this well-dressed mountain man possess a shred of textile?

When the mummy began to thaw as it was being taken off the mountain, it was immediately attacked by a fungus. A 4,000 year-old fungus? Was Iceman not only dead but also sick?

Most perplexing of all: How did a dried-out mummy wind up in a glacier anyway? That's about as likely as finding a dry sponge bobbing on the tide.

On a historic day for the Tyrol of southern Austria and northern Italy, where he is proudly nicknamed homo tirolensis , Iceman returned to the world on Sept. 19, when he was seen protruding from a glacier at an altitude of 11,000 feet by two German hikers.

It would turn out that the mummy lay a few yards inside Italy, but Italian carabinieri who were first called to the scene detected no crime and with a shrug proclaimed it someone else's problem. Austrian border police then took charge, and before long scientists' eyes were popping.

"Of primary importance is that the corpse is in perfect condition," said Spindler. "Hair, bones, organs--a complete mummified Bronze Age man for the first time." The Bronze Age, when early man first learned to smelt copper mixed with tin to make bronze implements, is reckoned to have lasted in Europe from around 2500 to 650 BC.

"Death caught this man by surprise, so we can study how he lived, not how he was buried. Archeology, as a rule, knows only graves and the artifacts left by the family, not necessarily those used by the person himself. This was a man on his way somewhere, carrying his own possessions. And everything is perfectly preserved, organic and non-organic," said Spindler, whose three-professor, 40-student department is the sudden center of their university's greatest intellectual adventure.

Thanks to the ice, they have not only a body to study from a time before history but also the metal, wood, fruit, hay, grass and leather that composed his worldly possessions.

The mummy who will be officially known as the "Hauslabjoch Man," after the mountain pass where he was found, was between 20 and 40 years old when he died. He stood about 5 feet tall and had badly worn teeth from a rough diet.

When he was discovered lying face-down in a large rock hollow on the edge of the glacier where he apparently took refuge, Iceman wore weatherproof clothing of mountain goat and antelope. His well-tanned leather coat was stuffed with hay as insulation, and the seams of his clothes were stitched with thin strips of leather.

Iceman had a leather sheath containing a flint stone and tinder tied to his waist with a leather belt. He had an ax, a rude knife with a stone blade, a bow, a pierced stone adorned with threads--a charm?--and a birch bark backpack in which he carried food, including berries.

His leather quiver contained 14 wooden arrows, some with long heads of bone and others without tips. In his sheath, Iceman had two flint arrowheads and some sort of pitch with which to affix them. Ammunition was precious: He was several thousand feet above the tree line and beyond any chance of replacement arrows.

Study completed at the site earlier this month by Innsbruck's Prof. Andreas Lippert suggests that Iceman put down his quiver at one spot, then his bow, rucksack and ax at another before sheltering on a flat stone in the rock hollow. Also found with him was a plaited mat of grass and a roughly tied net made of strong, twisted grass threads that was for either hunting or carrying goods.

Spindler said the ax with its bronze head and wooden shaft dates Iceman precisely to the South Middle European Bronze Age. He is guessing that he died about 2000 BC, possibly earlier.

"The ax is very archaic. It is hammered, not cast like others we know from that period," Spindler said. "The knife is also primitive--more Stone Age in its workmanship than Bronze Age."

An ice sheet now covers the site, and no further excavation will be possible until next summer. In the meantime, an international team of 26 scientists, most of them Europeans, will begin study of the artifacts this week at the Roman-Germanic Museum in Mainz, Germany, where they are being preserved.

"Who was this man? Was he a hunter? A shepherd? Was he prospecting for metal? Was he a typical man of his time, or a special man?" asks Spindler, who adds, "The absence of textiles is strange."

One possibility, Spindler said, is that Iceman may have been an outcast, isolated from his people, a pariah who had no means of acquiring the woven goods that were routine products of Bronze Age settlements.

One thing is certain: He was not epileptic. An Austrian newspaper advanced that startling conclusion on the basis of examination of a photograph it said was a scan of Iceman's brain. Scientists at the university date the photograph with great precision, for the scan shows not a brain but the thorax of an Austrian man, late 20th Century. And it was published upside-down.

The third pillar of research, examination of Iceman himself, will take place here at Innsbruck. The city may be known better abroad for its ski slopes than for its science, but there is nothing "Backwater U." about its university, formally known as the Leopold-Franzens University of Innsbruck.

Platzer, who heads the department of anatomy at the medical school, said it is the only university in the world with a CAT scanner reserved exclusively for research. The English translation of the third edition of Platzer's handbook on topographical anatomy is being reprinted, but copies are available in the original German as well as in French, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese and Turkish.

"I am looking for the best scientists in the world for this project. We have only one corpse. We must get it right the first time," said Platzer. "We've had no offers from the United States; the only inquiry was from a man in California who said he identified with Iceman because he was a Vietnam vet."

The mummy partially thawed on the way to Innsbruck from the mountain. It was immediately attacked by a fungus. Platzer said he doesn't know if the spore was ancient or modern, but he stopped it medically, as gently as possible, and immediately refroze the body. It now rests at minus 6 degrees centigrade, the temperature at which it was found, in a 17-foot-by-26-foot cold chamber at the university where Platzer usually stores his cadavers.

So far, under Platzer's decision, there has been no serious medical examination of Iceman, although Platzer said the corpse is intact except where small animals chewed away a piece of rump. "We scanned the corpse and we made two magnetic tapes, just in case of accidents. They are locked in a safe. Nobody has looked at them," Platzer said. "This is not Tyrol's corpse, or Italy's or Austria's. That's ridiculous. When research begins, we'll start with everybody else."

Platzer anticipates that about 50 scientists will ultimately be engaged in medical and anthropological study of the corpse. He plans to ask other researchers to independently conduct the same studies, by different methods if possible.

In the study that Platzer estimates will last three to five years, the first step will be to carbon-date Iceman to establish his age. Laboratories in Zurich, Switzerland, and Oxford, England, will get rib slivers. "If we sent samples to all who have asked, we would have no ribs left," Platzer said.

Next will come an attempt to decipher Iceman's DNA--not an easy task in mummies, Platzer said. Of the experts in the field, he thinks a Swede working in Germany and an Italian in Rome have the best chance of establishing Iceman's genetic code.

The third step will be study of the mummy's connective tissues; eventually Iceman will have to be thawed and preserved in some way other than cold. Subsequent research will seek external and internal parasites, and scientists may be able not only to pinpoint the cause of Iceman's death but also to describe his diet and what he ate for his last meal.

"We want to examine while destroying as little as possible. There are lots of old skeletons and body pieces 1,000 years old or so, but nobody in the world has seen a specimen like this one," said Platzer. "If the body is really 4,000 years old, it should give us important new ideas about man and his constitution."

Could Iceman be a hoax, a 1990s Piltdown Man? "I don't think so. But I need a real date. Until I get one, I say 'I believe' and so forth," Platzer said.

If things go smoothly, the carbon-dating results should be in by year's end.

As scientists begin their research, the most delicious mystery--perhaps one that will never be answered--is how something so dry got somewhere so wet.

"A mummy in a glacier--that's crazy," said Platzer. A mummy is desiccated, shorn of its fat and water content by dry heat. When people die in glaciers, Platzer notes, their body fat becomes wax-like.

Iceman is a mummy. That he was cold when he died seems certain. It may be tempting to imagine him languishing alone in an ancient blizzard, but one thing is sure: He didn't die in the snow. And neither can he have lain uninterrupted for 4,000 years in the deep freeze: Animals ate a chunk of him, and glaciers ebb and flow.

"The glacier experts I have talked with think he was in and out of the glacier over the centuries. I agree with them," said Platzer.

One possibility, Platzer speculates, is that Iceman died one cold and dry autumn night and that soon afterward there arose a warm, dry Alpine wind that his descendants today call a fohn .

It would take three or four weeks to have mummified the corpse, Platzer estimates, but sometimes a fohn blows that long. If the weather broke suddenly, snow could have then covered the mummy, eventually locking it in the preserving ice of a glacier.

It will be years before science is through with Iceman. New mysteries may arise in the meantime. Still, his custodians here think it is already possible to assay Iceman's importance.

"Written history does not necessarily have to be changed, but considerable enlargements, particularly for this early period of human development, will now take place because of him," Spindler said.

Montalbano recently was on assignment in Austria.

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