Director’s Pit

Views Of The Archaeological Landscape


by Kevin Fromings, Ba(hons) Ma

After many years of research (consisting of long nights spent imbibing copious amounts of a fermented honey-based beverage, listening to the 1982 album ‘Soldier on the Wall’), a tentative connection can be made between one Alexander Harvey – heavy drinking rock icon – and Ötzi, the so-called IceMan*.

*The body of a man was discovered in the late 20th century on the Austrian/Italian border, when a glacier thawed out. Carbon dating of the man and his belongings put him as alive during the Bronze Age. What was he doing up a mountain in bad weather?

(C) BBC Images 2017 & Fin Costello, getty Images

Aside from the fact that they both shuffled off this mortal coil before their due time. And no, Ötzi did not record a concept rock album on Mountain records (unlike the aforesaid Mr Harvey). I shall endeavour to explain…British Archaeology magazine (and one or two other sources) revealed that young Ötzi went to his untimely death not carrying a framed pannier on his back, which was the first suggestion, but probably wearing snow-shoes.

Obviously, the pannier had to be left strapped to his bike, because it is impossible to ride a bicycle wearing snow-shoes. It is even more impossible (if that is possible) to ride a bicycle wearing snow-shoes some 3,000 years before the bicycle was invented.

It has also been established that a “framed rucksack” would be impossible to carry while wearing his famous ‘thatched’ coat. Yes, shaped rather like an African ‘beehive’ hut, Ötzi’s coat was basically the Bronze Age equivalent of a mobile home. He could have had a gas stove and a shower in there for all we know (no, he couldn’t Kevin – see the bicycle reference; Ed).

Since a flint arrowhead was found in his back we have known that he was killed by a human assailant (unless there was a freak accident involving an eagle accidentally dropping an arrow from a great height that had been sticking out of a hare that it had caught. And what if Ötzi had shot the hare? Perhaps he was the winner of the first Darwin award.

But what was the other person doing up the mountain in bad weather? Was it some kind of endurance competition? Was the archer a sore loser? Not as sore as the man with the arrow in his back… Anyhow, I digress… Maybe there was a lodger in the thatched coat who was unhappy with the standard of breakfast that was included in the rent! With the disappearance of the pannier theory we now can assume that Ötzi was not carrying a bag… Or was he?

(C) PA, Daily Mail UK, October 2019

Scroll forward several millennia to the year 1982, and another premature death. That of Alex Harvey, legendary leader of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Focus on the second track on his final album ‘Soldier on the Wall’ which is entitled ‘Snow Shoes Thompson’.

Harvey may well have been a Closet Archaeologist (though he probably did not find much in there), for this track holds a tantalising mirror to life in the Early Bronze Age Alps. The song tells the story of a man who works for the US Mail, and who – with his snow-shoes – can get the post through, whatever the vagaries of the North American climate.

Interestingly it is followed by a track called ‘Mitzi’. Was this originally titled ‘Ötzi’? Did Harvey know about the body in the ice before everyone else?

Alex Harvey has often been labelled as ‘ahead of his time’, and his Ötzi theory is a case in point. Ötzi was no Ice Man; he was a Post Man, and his mortal remains are evidence of the first great mail robbery!

Example of a postal worker contractor on skiis, find the full Smithsonian article here: https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/networking-a-nation/john-snowshoe-thompson

Picture the scene, if you will. Ötzi set out from the main sorting office in his village in the valley. He was loaded down with important messages wrapped in birch bark envelopes. He headed up over the mountain to the next village, maybe he was carrying Bronze Age mail shots “Buy our copper, it’s the future of flint!”. Perhaps he was carrying valuable samples of materials, which would weigh him down and make him an obvious target. Perhaps he was simply tired and daydreaming about killing a hare for his supper…

Either way, it looks as though someone wanted to relieve him of what he was carrying, and was prepared to kill for it. In those days the hills may not have been alive with the sound of music; less singing nuns and more bandits. Desperate men clutching flint spears, leaping from rock to rock while wary travellers dodged across high paths where the air was thick with flying arrows. There were probably crime bosses dripping with copper ‘bling’, ensconced in deep caves controlling the whole operation.

Ötzi’s cumbersome grass coat has always been intriguing, but the postman theory now explains this. Granted, the garment would have been nice and snug in the sub-zero temperatures, but animal skins would have been less awkward. What is now plausible, is that the thatched construction was an early ‘mobile’ post office. Maybe he was also selling goat’s milk and sweets from a pottery jar behind the counter… However, it is possible that he was attacked on the equivalent of ‘pension day’, he would have been loaded with copper ingots ready to be distributed.

Now, some of you may consider that is just 21st Century folly. And many would point out that none of Ötzi’s ‘mail’ has ever appeared in the archaeological record. But, be aware that there is no oral tradition of any Neolithic Alpine village filing a complaint about ‘missing post’. It may be, that in those long-ago days of free trade bargaining, rival postal services were jockeying for position, and wanted to remove the competition. Or perhaps they let someone like Ötzi do all the sorting and admin work, and then bumped him off in the high passes, before making the delivery themselves and taking all the payment.

Ötzi the Iceman being killed by an arrow shot (Illustration by Rudolf Farkas)

If the latter is the case, I wonder at which point Ötzi’s village cottoned on to the fact that they always seemed to have a vacancy for a postman? Did the next village represent to them some kind of copper-rich Utopia that seemed to be luring the postmen away from their homes? If the mail was robbed in this way on a regular basis, there should be plenty of other Ötzi’s waiting to be discovered.

Whatever happened up there in the Alps, where men were men, and chamois were good for cleaning windows, I’m sure Alex Harvey could have written a song about it.


(C) BBC Archives, May 2019

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