How It Works

History of ice mummies

On an early autumn afternoon in 1991, Erika and Helmut Simon were walking off the beaten track in the Alps when they encountered a corpse protruding from the ice of a retreating glacier. It looked so fresh that they assumed it was the body of an unfortunate skier or climber – but this was Ötzi, an early-Bronze Age hunter who roamed the area 5,300 years ago. As valuable an archaeological find as he was, Ötzi is far from a unique specimen.

Ancient corpses interred in ice have been found across the globe, whether they were the victim of arbitrary violence, an accident or, in a more recent
and famous case, a ritual sacrifice. Mummy Juanita was found in 1995 on top of Mount Ampato, Peru, having been sacrificed to Incan gods at the age of 12-14 at some point in the 16th century.

The sub-zero conditions would have preserved their bodies indefinitely, like meat in a freezer. But after removing them from the ice, the museums in which they’re housed need to keep their humidity high (around 90 per cent) and temperature below -6 degrees Celsius (21.2 degrees Fahrenheit) to make sure that they do not deteriorate.