An Interview with Brenda Fowler,
Author of The Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier
One of the most important contributions to the study of the Iceman is the book by journalist Brenda Fowler, Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier. Fowler's work brought the Iceman back to life in a way that others could not. She spent seven years researching the story and interviewing everyone involved with his discovery and analysis. What resulted is an excellent example of a writer's ability to track the facts (and politics) behind the news and make it compelling.
Here is an interview that James M. Deem of Mummy Tombs conducted with her in 2006.
MT: Can you tell readers a little about your early life?
Brenda Fowler: I was born in Iowa and moved around a lot as a kid: Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin. From as far back as I remember I was interested in history and ancient cultures and archaeology. I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and used to make all my friends play "Little House on the Prairie" during recess. I was also very interested in the excavations by Louis and Mary Leakey in Kenya and Tanzania. In 5th grade I saw a National Geographic movie about their discovery of Zinjanthropus (now known as Australopithecus) and it just gave me chills. After that my friends and I would dig in the ground during recess and pretend that we were finding artifacts, but the most interesting thing we ever found was a bit of barbed wire! In my senior year of high school I was an exchange student in Belgium, where I lived with a wonderful family and learned Flemish, which is a dialect of Dutch. So few people speak it (fewer than about 10 million) that it's kind of like a secret language. I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison and majored in journalism and international relations. During my junior year I studied in Vienna, Austria, where I learned German.
MT: Why did you decide to become a writer?
Brenda Fowler: Since I moved so much, I left behind a lot of friends to write. At one point when I was a teenager I had more than 40 pen pals. Most of them were in the United States, but I also had one in Milan, Italy, and she remains a good friend to this day. I think writing all those letters and learning about other peoples' lives gave me the idea to be a writer or journalist. Strangely, I never really had any "writing" teachers. But I've kept a diary since I was 13 or 14 years old.
MT: What made you decide to write about Ötzi?
Brenda Fowler: When the Iceman was discovered in 1991, I was working as a freelance correspondent for The New York Times, based in Vienna. I had been writing about the break-up of the eastern bloc countries -- the collapse of communism -- and had travelled to the (then) Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Bulgaria, Yugoslavia (now Croatia and Serbia etc.) and Albania to do reporting. I had never written a single article about science but I knew that I had to report on this fascinating discovery that came out of the ice, so I called the science editor of the New York Times and he told me to write it. I didn't know much about prehistory at that time so I had to learn a lot very quickly, but it was very exciting to talk with the researchers. In 1992 I returned to the United States, to Chicago, to do a master's program in general studies in humanities at the University of Chicago. It was during that year that I decided to write a book about the Iceman.
MT: What did you enjoy more when you worked on the book: research or writing?
Brenda Fowler: To be honest, I had no idea how much work writing a book was going to be. I was living in Chicago but I travelled back to Europe for several months a year over the course of six years to do all my research and reporting. I tried to meet everyone involved in the project, including the people who discovered him and dug him out of the ice, and ultimately conducted more than 100 interviews. When I got back to Chicago I would transcribe all my recordings. In addition I was talking to people here about the late Stone Age, the period in which the Iceman lived, and reading books and papers about life in prehistory. I guess I would have to say that at the beginning I really enjoyed the research, but as the story began to take shape, I enjoyed the writing more. There were too many roadblocks to even count: from small things like trying to find the right way to move from one part of the book to the next to the fact that Konrad Spindler, the lead archaeologist on the project who at first was very helpful, decided not to talk with me when he learned I was writing a book because he thought it would compete with his book. Ultimately his resistance became part of the story.
MT: Why is Ötzi so important--to scientists and to regular people?
Brenda Fowler: Most of the things archaeologists have from 5000 years ago are made of stone, clay, bone or metal -- everything else (like bodies or food or items made of wood or grass) has decayed. Ötzi is important because he was preserved in snow and ice, which largely preserved his body, equipment and clothing. Ötzi's skin had tattoos on it; his hair contained evidence that he had been around the smelting process (the melting down of raw metal to make things, like his copper axe) and his stomach contained the remnants of his last meal, which was a kind of granola-like cereal made of wheat. Before Ötzi, archeologists didn't really know how people living in the mountains 5000 years ago were dressed because none of it had survived. His clothing was made out of deer skin (though his hat was made of bear fur) and he carried with him a full set of equipment, including a bow and arrows (which he was still in the process of making), a copper axe and a small container that contained a burning ember.
MT: What's your personal view about the exhibition of human remains?
Brenda Fowler: I know that some people find it offensive that the iceman's body is on display, but I am not troubled by it. The museum where the corpse is on display has created a darkened and quiet area in which to view the body, and I think that atmosphere gives people an opportunity to reflect on his life and our connection to it. They might ultimately have to make some kind of cast of the Iceman but I'm not sure it would be as awe-inspiring as the original. People like to see the "real" thing.
MT: What's your take on the so-called "Curse of Otzi"?
Brenda Fowler: If Ötzi were in the position to be sending any messages our way, I think he would be sending blessing and not curses. So no, I don't believe in the curse of the Iceman. So many people have been involved in the project, it's not surprising that some of them would have died in the 15 years since he was discovered. After all, 15 years is about one-sixth of a person's life expectancy, isn't it?
MT: Can you comment on the finder's fee lawsuit filed by the Simons? Do you think the Simons are wrong in asking for money at all?
Brenda Fowler: I knew Helmut Simon...and his wife Erika, and they are wonderful and not greedy people. I think that in looking for a finder's fee for their discovery what they were really trying to do was get some recognition that they were the ones who first found the Iceman. The government of South Tyrol could have done a better job acknowledging them in this way. A lot of people have profited from the Iceman so I'm not surprised that the Simons would want to get their share, too.
MT: Do you have any advice for aspiring mummy scientists or writers?
Brenda Fowler: My advice for aspiring mummy scientists and/or writers: Go out and see the world! Interview your friends and write down what they say -- or make a video about it! Learn a foreign language or two so you can talk to people in other places. And keep a journal! Just let your curiosity take you where you want to go!