Rising temperatures across the planet have affected the snow-topped Alps that dominate the border between Italy and Austria. Strangely, though, the change hasn’t been all doom and gloom—rising temperatures have paved the way for unbelievable discoveries.

For instance, in 2015, an Italian archeologist patrolled the top of a mountain peak with his team of excavators. There, he saw something peculiar sticking out of the snow. Curiosity piqued, he and his team uncovered the snow-covered object, only to discover it had a shocking connection to a brutal time in history…

Few knew the bloody history lurking beneath the snow of Italy’s popular alpine ski resorts better than 61-year-old Italian archaeologist Livio Defrancesco. In 2015, he spotted something strange while poking around the peak of a ski resort in Val di Fassa.

Though a major storm had just struck the mountainside, Livio saw a pair of boots sticking out from the snow. Was it the lost boot of a hiker or something more? Curiosity piqued, he and his crew went to work excavating the snow around the boot.

Back Country

As he and his team pulled the snow away, Livio realized they’d found something much more significant than an old boot. Though it would’ve been enough to ruin your average person’s day, Livio was beaming…

“I’m sure it’s an Italian soldier,” he told The Italian Tribune of the skeleton he’d found. “You can tell by what’s left of his boots, the ’91 ammo he has for his rifle and the Sipe hand grenade found near the body.” But how’d this fellow end up there?

Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento

That’s where the blood-filled and vicious history of northern Italy’s Alps came in to play. As is the case with many of Europe’s brutal stories, the tale of this particular skeleton dated back to World War I!

Stefano Torrione / National Geographic-Italia

In 1915, the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled the Trentino and South Tyrol provinces of Northern Italy. Italy didn’t like that, so the nation sought to reclaim the territory as part of its own recently united front.

During the war, the most elite Italian soldiers trained to battle their Austrian and German enemies in cruel conditions. For three years, they camped in the Alps at elevations above 6,500 feet, where temperatures were obviously sub-freezing.

Museo Storico Italiano Della Guerra Di Rovereto

“June and July 1915 were bloody months on the mountain,” said Italian historian Michele Simonetti Federspiel. “At that time, the Italian generals were trying to gain dominance on the peaks that overlooked Val Corevole.”

Museo Storico Italiano Della Guerra Di Rovereto

This urgency only compounded the dangers of fighting in the Alps. More than 150,000 men lost their lives on the battlefront that’d eventually become known as The White War. And as for the skeleton that Livio found in 2015?

Museo della Grande Guerra, Peio

Livio believed the soldier died in that fighting. A shrapnel wound on his shoulder revealed he likely died in combat, not from frostbite or avalanches like so many others. This discovery, however, was not unique…


In the 1990s, as the world continued to warm, the glaciers in the Alps slowly melted. As they did, nature revealed more and more of the history that it once concealed, like this Austrian rifle.

Museo della Grande Guerra, Peio

Another discovery—far more grim than Livio’s—occurred in 2004, when a mountain guide and museum director named Maurizio Vicenzi (pictured) found something not for those with weak stomachs…

Maurizo found three mummified Austrian soldiers, hanging upside down out of an ice wall 12,000 feet above sea level. They had no weapons but carried bandages in their pockets. Since then, more and more skeletons have been found in the Italian Alps.

Museo della Grande Guerra, Peio

It was as if everything that had happened during that battle was left behind and forgotten. Over 80 skeletons turned up on mountainsides. Memories of the war laid, well-preserved, in the ice for over a century.

Stefano Torrione / National Geographic-Italia

Further digging and research revealed the fallen soldiers themselves weren’t the only artifacts waiting underneath the ice. Archeologists also uncovered secrets hidden within the mountains themselves…

Museo Storico Italiano Della Guerra Di Rovereto

Melting snow and plenty of digging revealed complex tunnel systems boring right into the side of the mountains. This one had been dug by Austrian soldiers to facilitate movement atop the dangerous mountainside.

Laura Spinney

Over time, researchers found more and more from the fighting. In a cableway station, old ripped documents and faded photographs adorned the walls. They offered a real glimpse into the past—one that didn’t end there.

Laura Spinney

Researchers also recovered many smaller objects that the soldiers left behind. These included items like a framed mirror holding a photograph, letters, playing cards, preserved food, and an oil lamp.

Stefano Torrione / National Geographic-Italia

In the Corno di Cavento garrison—an Austrian military post carved directly into the mountain—archeologists actually found an old grenade shell that’d been repurposed as a lamp!

Stefano Torrione / National Geographic-Italia

The White War Museum in Peio, Italy, already housed plenty of objects from the fearsome mountain battles, but it seemed as if, year after year, it welcomed new and important finds into its midst.


Each skeleton found was treated to a military funeral. Still, there was no way for archeologists to ever truly know how many more men were lying under the ice. In fact, just a few decades before, hikers, made a similar history-defining discovery.

Laura Spinney

It was September 19th, 1991, when German hikers Helmut and Erika Simon set off on an expedition through the snowcapped peaks of the Italian Alps. The Simons were looking to have an unforgettable experience, and by day’s end, the couple had gotten exactly that.

Eternal Lifestyle

As they navigated the spectacular vistas of the region’s Otztal Alps, the Simons — encouraged by years of hiking experience — tackled some of the range’s more treacherous terrain. And so, the couple abandoned their planned route and began exploring off trail.


Nearing the summit of a large mountain, the Simons noticed a strange-looking shape jutting out of the earth. The couple approached the object, and what they found there chilled them more than any snow ever could…

RMI Expeditions

It was a human corpse! The Simons were understandably shaken by their discovery, which they believed to be the body of a fellow hiker that had met an unfortunate end. But when the couple contacted authorities, they soon learned there was a lot more to this body.

World Lifestyle

Just after the excavation team arrived a violent storm swept through the mountains, making the recovery of the body incredibly difficult. After three long days of on-and-off digging, rescue workers were finally able to unearth the frozen corpse.

News broke quickly of the daring mountainside recovery, with one Austrian reporter dubbing the deceased mountaineer “Otzi the Iceman” after the location in which he was found. But as authorities began to inspect the recovered body, they realized that Otzi was no ordinary hiker…

The Times of Israel

Otzi was quickly brought to the University of Innsbruck, where archaeologist Konrad Spindler examined his body and made a startling discovery. As it turns out, Otzi was actually an ancient mummy cadaver from the Bronze Age, making him an astonishing 5,300 years old!

Otzi’s body was incredibly well-preserved thanks to the wet mountain conditions. Not only did this enable scientists to run an advanced test on the remains, but it also allowed them to create a 3D reconstruction of what Otzi might’ve looked like.

Bonnie Brennan / Smithsonian Mag

According to the data taken from his body, Otzi stood 5’5″, weighed 84 pounds, and was 45 years of age at the time of his death. Scientists also deduced that Otzi had brown eyes, a thick beard, and generally maintained an overall haggard appearance. But the revelations about Otzi weren’t solely cosmetic.

Mother Nature Network

From the 30 different pollen samples taken from Otzi’s stomach, scientists determined that the iceman had perished sometime in the spring or summer. This information, coupled with the fact that Otzi had eaten an ibex a mere two hours before his death, allowed scientists to trace his travels through the region as well as understand some of the diseases he suffered from during his lifetime.

Even after thousands of years in the snow, tests on the body revealed that Otzi had been plagued with a myriad of ailments, including whipworm, cardiovascular disease, and lactose intolerance. Otzi also suffered from the earliest-known case of Lyme’s Disease, though this wouldn’t be the iceman’s only historical first…

Der Mann aus dem Eis

Thanks to the incredible condition of his skin, scientists were able to identify a number of markings on Otzi’s body as primitive tattoos, which were likely used to mark acupuncture points. Not only did this make Otzi the oldest tattooed mummy to date, but it also indicated that acupuncture was practiced 2,000 years before first believed.

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson

Despite this wealth of information derived from Otzi’s body, it took a full decade before the mystery surrounding the iceman’s death was solved. Though scientists originally believed he had died from exposure, new studies conducted in 2001 revealed a grisly truth behind Otzi’s untimely demise…


Using advanced x-ray technology, scientists discovered an arrowhead lodged in Otzi’s left shoulder. Given the location of the shot, the arrow would’ve pierced a vital artery, likely causing Otzi to bleed to death. It wasn’t a snowstorm that killed Otzi: he was murdered!

Wild Truth

Questions swirled about this newfound revelation, with scientists scrambling to find a motivation for the murder of the iceman. One theory suggested that Otzi had been shot while raiding a rival tribe, while another claimed that Otzi had been the victim of ritual sacrifice. Ultimately, though, the items found alongside Otzi’s body provided the biggest insight into his death.

National Geographic

The iceman was discovered with a number of valuables in his possession, including tools, furs, and a copper axe. Seeing that the killer had simply left these items alongside the body, scientists deduced that the killing was likely of a personal nature. Otzi’s murder was solved, but one final realization about the mummy proved deadly for all those involved.

In 2004, 13 years after he and Erika first discovered Otzi, Helmut Simon died in a freak accident during a trek through the Austrian Alps. Not long after, Konrad Spindler, the archaeologist that first examined Otzi, also perished under mysterious circumstances. Fueled by these unexplained deaths, rumors began to circulate that, like the ancient pharaohs of Egypt, the iceman was cursed.

Speculation about the curse only increased when one of the Alpine guides that excavated Otzi was killed in an avalanche, and a forensic expert that once touched Otzi’s body died in a car accident. To this day, seven deaths have been attributed to the curse of Otzi.

Those looking to experience the wonder of Otzi firsthand – and potentially invite a curse or two – could visit the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy, where he stood on display. A memorial was also constructed at the site of Otzi’s discovery to commemorate the historic find.

Viennaweekends / WordPress

Though Otzi’s story may be a long and controversial one, there’s no denying his importance to the archaeological community. As scientists continue to peel back the layers of the iceman’s past, hopefully, we too will learn more about the secrets of our history.

Otztal Blog