Reanimating Ötzi The Iceman In Forensics Class

This blog post originally appeared on gothamschools.org, where she and other Fund for Teachers shared their summer fellowship experiences.

Forensics is a relatively new science course with limited curriculum available. For the last three years, I have been teaching a course I developed from scratch, and I am always looking for new and interesting ways to engage students. This summer, my search took me to Ötzi the Iceman, one of the most significant discoveries in forensic science.

Ötzi the Iceman comes from a distant and mysterious past. Twenty years ago, he was pulled out of the Alpine glacial ice in almost perfect condition, complete with clothes, tools, and visible tattoos. And there are unanswered questions surrounding his death, which took place thousands of years ago. He was originally thought to have been a lost herder that took a fatal wrong turn in the snowy Alps. But recent evidence points to a more sinister explanation, making Ötzi the earliest human for whom we have direct evidence of a possible murder.

Ötzi’s story encompasses what forensics is all about – using the scientific method to interpret and weigh the relative importance of the evidence found on a subject and drawing conclusions about the cause of death. I wanted to bring him to my students.

So with the support of the Fund for Teachers, I visited Ötzi himself in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. Vital to processing a (possible) crime is to document the scene of the death: For me, this meant visiting Tisenjoch pass, along the Italian-Austrian border in the Alps. I was able to hike to where Ötzi died and was discovered with two mountain guides. The hike consisted of a six-mile round-trip hike from Vernagt village in the Schnalstal valley to the pass between Finail and Similaun peak.

In addition I also visited Egolzwil, Canton Lucerne in neighboring Switzerland because it is one of the best-preserved sites of the late Neolithic. These lakeside-dwelling people left behind stilt houses and used many of the same plant and animal species that were found on Ötzi. This UNESCO World Heritage site provided an excellent insight into how people lived in Alpine valleys during the late Neolithic period.

During my travels, I learned more about the recent research that has been done on Ötzi, and the questions that remain unanswered about him. As with today’s crimes, there is evidence to be examined such as the fatal arrow wound and the hair and fibers that were found on him. I learned about the techniques and equipment scientists are using to examine Ötzi and how they compare to what we use in our forensics class in Brooklyn.

My students have never studied Ötzi in depth before. But this year, the story of Ötzi and the subsequent research done on him by teams of experts will make for an excellent mastery project for my forensics class.

In my experience, students naturally like forensics because it is inquiry-based and allows them to explore their own hypotheses by examining evidence and utilizing the scientific method. When students put the pieces of evidence together into a narrative they have the opportunity to be creative, as long as their conclusions can be supported. I have found that students love to compare conjectures of reasons for a death with each other. There are a multitude of possibilities to the story of Ötzi’s death, which will allow students to engage in a real-life forensics investigation with the pictures, descriptions, and notes that I brought back from my trip.

They will begin their journey by researching the Ötzi and his people lived. They will hypothesize what Ötzi was doing when he was hiking so far into the mountains. They will examine the evidence using the primary resources I brought back and begin to draw their own conclusions. Most importantly they will share their thoughts and discoveries with one another through an online discussion.

My pictures, interviews, and experiences will give my students access to one of the most exciting scientific debates happening today. For example, an arrowhead that was found in Ötzi’s shoulder in 2001, 10 years after his discovery, has opened up a whole new dimension of his story. And with the recent extensive autopsy, there are sure to be more exciting discoveries. My research will allow students to see firsthand how science is a constantly changing subject.

This unit will also allow students to see real-life opportunities in science including basic research as well as technical equipment and preservation work. Students will learn about my experiences and about all the different jobs surrounding the Iceman. I am hoping that this information will either confirm their hopes for a career in science or spark an interest.

In addition students will use Wikispaces, an online discussion site, to have conversations online about Ötzi and other forensics topics. They will be required to respond to an open ended question such as, “If Ötzi was found to have meat in his stomach hypothesize what sort of mood was he in? Was he in a hurry or do you think he took his time to eat his last meal? What does this indicate about the circumstances around his death? Was he running from his killer or was he ambushed?” Students will also be required to react to at least three other responses from their peers. I will also look to connect with other forensics teachers who are studying Ötzi and see if we can have our students connect and debate over Wikispaces with one another.

Every year I teach 75 forensics students. An inquiry based mastery project in which students are playing the role of forensic scientists will surely be an experience for them to remember. My students will be participating in interpreting one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time, from the closest perspective they can get, without actually visiting the sites or seeing Ötzi’s body themselves.