Unfrozen

There was only one way scientists could unlock the mystery of the famous Iceman. Take away his ice.

Shortly after 6 p.m. on a drizzling, dreary November day in 2010, two men dressed in green surgical scrubs opened the door of the Iceman's chamber in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. They slid the frozen body onto a stainless steel gurney. One of the men was a young scientist named Marco Samadelli. Normally, it was his job to keep the famous Neolithic mummy frozen under the precise conditions that had preserved it for 5,300 years, following an attack that had left the Iceman dead, high on a nearby mountain. On this day, however, Samadelli had raised the temperature in the museum's tiny laboratory room to 18°C—64°F.

With Samadelli was a local pathologist with a trim mustache named Eduard Egarter Vigl, known informally as the Iceman's "family doctor." While Egarter Vigl poked and prodded the body with knowing, sometimes brusque familiarity, a handful of other scientists and doctors gathered around in the cramped space, preparing to do the unthinkable: defrost the Iceman. The next day, in a burst of hurried surgical interventions as urgent as any operation on a living person, they would perform the first full-scale autopsy on the thawed body, hoping to shed new light on the mystery of who the Iceman really was and how he had died such a violent death.

Egarter Vigl and Samadelli carefully transferred the body to a custom-made box lined with sterilized aluminum foil. In its frozen state, the Iceman's deep caramel skin had a dignified luster, reminiscent of a medieval figure painted in egg tempera. With the agonized reach of his rigid left arm and the crucifixate tilt of his crossed feet, the defrosting mummy struck a pose that wouldn't look out of place in a 14th-century altarpiece. Within moments, beads of water, like anxious sweat, began to form on his body. One droplet trickled down his chin with the slow inevitability of a tear.

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