The Iceman's Belt

By Chuck Kritzon © 2006



The Iceman was discovered in the Otztal Alps in the fall of 1991, the location giving him his now famous name: Otzi. His preserved body and equipment have given us a wealth of information about the time in which he lived.


He died and was buried in glacial ice 5,300 years ago, alone and in pain, yet the remains of his body and equipment are teaching us more than any previous discovery about that time in history when our ancestors were moving out of the stone age and into the age of metal.

He was prepared for his trek through the Tyrolean Alps as well as any modern climber, knowing the dangers of sudden snowstorms that can occur in the spring of the year. He did die, but it was not the weather or the mountains that killed him. It was an arrow shot into his left shoulder that shattered his scapula and tore through blood vessels and nerves. Although he escaped his attacker, the combination of blood loss and the immobility of his left arm had doomed his chances of surviving.

His pain must have been great as he kept climbing, finally stopping at an altitude of 10,400 ft. He slipped his quiver over his shoulder and dropped it to the ground. Staggering a few more yards, he removed his pack frame and laid it down against a stone outcropping. Using only his right arm, he carefully removed two birchbark containers from his pack, one he set on top of the rock, the other he kept close to him, a familiar smell momentarily comforting him. He then placed his copper axe and his bow stave with the pack. Clutching his birchbark cylinder, he struggled a few more steps before he stumbled, but even then, twisting to avoid landing on his left side and protecting the treasure in the container. He painfully pulled the birch bark close to his face, inhaled the last vestiges of the smoke from the failing ember inside and died.


What we would have seen

We will never really know how he spent his last moments, but he died in the snow and ice only a few yards away from his neatly stacked equipment.  If we were there at that exact moment, we would have seen a 40+ year old man lying in the snow, perfectly dressed for this environment. His feet protected by grass-filled bear and deerskin shoes, fur leggings with a flap of fur tucked into his shoes in order to hold the bottom in place while trudging through deep snow. Over his upper body he wore a tailored fur-on hide coat and a twined grass rain-cape that hung to his knees. On his head was a dome shaped bearskin hat with a leather strap knotted under his chin. In his hand, he held a cylindrical birch bark container that contained freshly picked maple leaves and grass, insulating a recently live ember.

The materials and patterns of his clothing had been tested and shaped by generations of ancestors that had lived through the harsh environment of the ice age.  Human kind had chosen the best material for each job. The hides, bones, antlers and feathers of six different animal species and the leaves, wood and fiber of 17 different trees and shrubs can be seen in the making of his clothing and equipment.

Viewing this scene of 5,300 years ago is even more remarkable for what we CAN'T see. Underneath his outer clothing lay even more examples of the Iceman's innate understanding of his world and his environment.  All of his knowledge and experience, his ability to survive, was focused and connected to his seemingly simple belt.


Scale re-creation of the Icemans belt.
Courtesy and Copyright of Matthew Amt, 2005


The Iceman's Belt

The first impression of Otzi's calf-leather belt is how unremarkable it seems. It is about 2 yards long, 2.25" high in the center, tapering to .25" at the ends. It is long enough to wrap around his body twice with plenty left over for tying a knot. Historically, most loincloths are held up with a simple single cord. Why would he need such a long, wide piece of hide to just hold up his loincloth? Some of you who rock climb may remember the old "swami belt", used before the advent of the modern climbing harness. It was just a flat piece of nylon webbing that was snugly wrapped several times around your body and tied securely. Because it was tied to the main climbing rope, the belt would spread out the force of a fall to a wider area helping to prevent injury. Even todays' backpacks have wide belts to help distribute the weight of the load over your lower back and hips.

So, a wider belt would have been more comfortable and helped to carry a heavier load. You may be asking, "What about his quiver and axe and pack frame that he put down? What other load would his belt need to support?" The Iceman's belt did do more than hold up his loincloth. His leggings were attached to the belt at the sides. As they got saturated with moisture from walking through the snow, it would have created extra weight.

Also, two other items were suspended from the belt. Though not heavy, they were important; a hafted flint dagger 5.5" in length inside a twined grass sheath, and an antler and wood pressure flaking tool almost 5" long.

The pressure flaker is remarkably similar to the "broomstick handle and copper wire" tools we use today to pressure flake stone.  A 0.2" diameter by 2" long rod of deer antler was pressed into the center of a 1" diameter wood handle, then sharpened to a point like a big pencil. The antler had been fire hardened.

The "dagger", so named because both edges are sharpened, is really nothing more than a simple flint spear point tied onto a flat handle with sinew. No glue or pitch was used in the hafting. Like the pressure flaker, the end of the handle was notched to keep the bast cordage from slipping off. (NOTE: Although the knife and pressure flaker were not actually attached to the belt at the time the iceman was recklessly pulled from the ice, most experts agree that due to the position of the cordage left tied to the belt and the position in which they were finally found, that they had been attached to the belt since the Iceman fell.)

More important than the belt's ability to keep the loincloth and leggings in place was the ability to keep itself in place. The survivalist's adage "everything you carry should have more than one use" is not a recent realization. The belt held another surprise when examined closely. An 8" long, 2" high strip of hide was stitched onto the front of the belt in almost the exact center.  The stitching was accomplished using a hide lacing that varied in width from .19" to .25" wide that went completely around the hide strip with the exception of a 3.25" opening left in the center at the top edge. It was a pouch! It even had a 6" long lace attached to one side to tie it closed.

This simple leather belt would stay with him under all but the most extreme conditions. He could lose his bow and quiver, his axe, even his outer clothes and shoes, but his belt would remain. The pouch, protected by the outer flap of his loincloth, held 5 items: his survival kit.  To untrained eyes, they were worthless fragments of stone, bone and fungus but in the hands of an expert woodsman, it would give him a chance at surviving even with everything else lost.

Dimensions of the Iceman's Belt


The Contents of the Belt Pouch

The belt pouch contained 3 flint tools, 1 bone awl and a lump of Fomes fomentarius or, true tinder fungus.
The 3 flint tools are made from similar, if not identical flint.
1. The scraper: 2.63" long, .5" wide, .31" thick. It has a thick triangular cross-section and has been worked on all edges. There are traces of "sickle gloss" which indicated it was used in cutting grasses or grain stalks. It would be a good tool for cutting, planing and scraping.
2. The drill: Length 1.94", width .5" tapering to .25", thickness .27".  It has a square cross section that is much broader and thicker at one end tapering to a fine point. This makes it ideal for hand drilling or it could have been hafted to a shaft.
3. Small flake: Length .85", width .5", thickness .1". This small fragment would have been difficult to hold but its thin edge would allow for fine carving, notching.
The bone awl is probably made from the long leg bone of a goat, sheep or ibex. It's length 2.75", width .22".  In following the natural shape of leg bones, it has a curved cross section at the center with one end finely worked to a point, the other being slightly rounded. The point was sharp enough for making holes to repair his clothing.
The true tinder fungus consists of approximately four pieces which when put together, are about 2" square. This fungus can be found on dead and dying birch and beech trees and is parasitical. Fomes fomentarius is an important part of a Neolithic fire making kit.  The inner layers must be cut out and then pounded or ground to enhance its spark-catching qualities. This prepared fungus together with flint and iron pyrite will catch a spark that can be blown into an ember and was a primary fire starting technique used in the Neolithic. Even into modern times, Fomes is still used medicinally and to make a suede-like felt, used as a craft material.  Microscopic analysis of the tinder fungus in the pouch showed traces of iron pyrite particles in its fibrous structure, although no pyrite was discovered near the Iceman or his equipment. Perhaps his care and experience carrying live coals lessened his apparent need for making sure he had pyrite in his pouch.

The orginal Iceman's belt and it's contents.


There are still many more questions than answers presented by the Iceman. Why was he attacked? Where was he going? Recent discoveries of human blood stains from four different individuals, found on his clothing and tools begs even more answers.
He has given us an incredible glimpse into his life and of the time in which he lived, but he will always remain a mystery.



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#29 pps. 64-66.
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Fowler, Brenda
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Random House, New York
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1980    The Natural World of the California Indians, University of California Press

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Sedivy, Mr.
2002    The Clothing of The Iceman, History Class Pages, Highlands Ranch High School
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2006    Personal Communication
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1993    The Man In The Ice, Harmony Books , New York
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2004    Material World/ Objects, University of Washington
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2002    Personal Communication
James M. Deem
South Tyrol Museum Of Archeology


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