Harald Stadler
"Subordinate versus Superior". The glacier corpse of the poacher Norbert Mattersberger found on the Gradetzkees in the East Tyrol.


With 637 glaciers, the Tyrol is among the areas with the most glaciers in the world. The word “Kees”, meaning glacier, comes from the Old High German word “ches” (=ice) and is often used in the eastern part of the Tyrol, in Carinthia and in the province of Salzburg. Between   1600 and 1850 nearly all Alpine glaciers expanded. However, in the second half of the 19th century as well as between 1927 and 1973, Europe’s large glaciers lost a third of their surface area and about half of their volume of 1850.

This development is continuing. Glaciers are thinning rapidly and, in some cases, are even disappearing; a phenomenon that has been affecting Central Europe more and more clearly and dramatically (picture 1).

Experts have observed the glaciers more intensively since the 19th century, and historic maps help to measure the velocity of glacial volume loss. The tongue of the Umbalkees, whose recent melting revealed the wreckage of a World War II cargo plane and therefore attracted the notice of sensational press, has declined by nearly 100 meters during the last decades. (picture 2). The massive shrinking of the glaciers as a result of, for example, global warming, is not only interesting to various natural science areas but is also a fantastic chance for archaeology.

Nearly all materials made from plants such as linen, cotton and wood, animal fibers such as wool, silk, hair, horn and leather as well as animal and human bodies are preserved due to special storing conditions.
Freeze-drying and adipoceration preserve the ice corpses well, especially their soft parts, so they form a “biologi-
cal safe” that can be professionally processed to the extent of analyzing DNA sequences.
Glacier corpses mainly include alpinists followed by hunters, poachers, crystal searchers, metal prospectors, shep-
herds, dairymaids and escaped criminals.

Accidents examined with modern techniques are still rare exceptions. Among them are the 5,000-year old Iceman (Man from the Hauslabjoch), the 16th century mercenary soldier from the Theodulpass with his weapons (pistol, sword and dagger), money and pieces of equipment and the 19th century dairymaid from the Porchabella glacier in Switzerland with her belongings such as her wooden bowl, her spoon and her comb.
Another group of people who lost their lives on the glacier were World War I soldiers; they died in the Ortler and Marmolata range. Since they were forced to climb difficult routes at any time and any weather, a large number of soldiers fell into crevasses and perished.

The fact that the glaciers reveal their dead has long been known and may be one of the reasons for the alpine myth of the lost souls that are banished to the eternal ice. The East Tyrol has spawned stories about alpine meadows buried under ice and snow. It was not until tourism took off in the Alps and skiing was invented in the 19th century that the high-alpine ice fields lost their stigmatization.
Werner Meyer connects the fact of unforeseen death on the one hand and the lack of a proper burial on the other with the motif of being banished to a cold purgatory. This kind of punishment appears as a consequence of sinful actions such as the hunt for the white chamois or the wasteful behavior of the dairymaids and men. All these apparitional figures have one thing in common: They cannot rest in peace. Not only Christianity believes that a proper burial is
necessary in order for the soul to enter eternal paradise.
The soil structure of the geologically young
 Alps that formed in the Tertiary period is responsible for the consider-
able velocity of the glacial ice flowing down rather steep slopes.   This is the reason why animals and humans who died by falling into a crevasse are hidden by the ice no longer than 100 to 200 years. If glacial flow is stopped by a slope’s edge or a glacial break, it is assumed that shear and friction forces act to fragment a victim’s body into micro particles.

Dead bodies uncovered by glacial movement usually get much public notice, such as the world’s most famous ice mummy, the Man from the Hauslabjoch. However, many glacial finds have not gained enough attention: Neolithic bows, Medieval crossbow bolts with wooden shafts and remains of feather fletching found on the Lötschental glacier in Switzerland or shoes and pants from the Hallstatt era found on the Rieserferner range in the South Tyrol region at an elevation of 2,850 meters.

It is not just archaeology that has benefited from glacier recession. Since 1991, Patzelt and Nicolussi from the Innsbruck University Institute of High-Alpine Research have found wood remains at the ends of the Pasterze and the Gepatschferner glacier. The surprising age of the remains was determined through radiocarbon dating and dendro-analysis: about 10,000 BP. This result opened the way to the construction of the dendro-curve and contributed to research on glacial development in the Holocene era in the Tyrol.

As shown in these examples, glaciers are important sources for historical and natural historical sciences. The new science in the area of archaeology, glacial archaeology, gains more and more importance since there are hardly any documents on human activity in the Alpine ice.
Intense cooperation between authorities such as owners and administrators of the glacial areas, the Austrian Alpine Club, the Hohe Tauern National Park, mountain rescue services, Alpine police, chalet owners and operators as well as the local university institutes of archaeology, high-alpine research, palaeontology, zoology, botany etc. has still to be developed and implemented in Austria. This need for cooperation was recognized when the remains of a Junkers 52 transport aircraft found in the Umbalkees/East Tyrol were referred to by the media as “scrap”. They are to be officially protected (picture 3).
General methods and problem-specific methods in glacial archaeology need to be developed in an interdisciplinary and international fashion. The basis for this development laid at an “Iceman” symposium in
 Innsbruck in 1992 is now solid enough to work on.

So much for the status quo of research in and possible perspectives of glacial archaeology.  East Tyrol’s research case is presented in the following text.

History of the Find and Object Description

On 9th August 1929, Alois Hanser aka Predozza from Kals at the Grossglockner/East Tyrol found a male corpse on the Gradetzkees (Gradötzkees) of the Granatspitz massif at an elevation of 2,700 meters. Having reported the case to the local authorities, Inspector Karl Wenter from the Huben police department in the municipality of Matrei/East Tyrol accompanied by a forensic officer, two helpers and Alois Hanser went to retrieve the human remains. They lay on the terminus of the Gradetzkees towards the Dorferalm, about 10 meters below a crevasse. A photograph of the find - the only visual documentation – shows the situation just before the recovery (picture 4).

The man’s head was missing, which can clearly be seen in the photograph and was also reported by people involved in the find. Parts of the chest and back were well preserved, hair and skin still adhering to the torso. One of the lower legs was broken off at the knee and was also missing. The hand and leg bones as well as the bones on both sides of the body were exposed. The dead man still had a leather brace over his shoulder.
Shreds of clothing, hair, teeth, ossicles, led shots, buttons and a clasp knife lay scattered between the end of the crevasse and the corpse (picture 5).
The three buttons are made of white metal. Each of them has a slight hump in the middle and is ornamented with a floral pattern carved with a pair of compasses and a burin. 4-mm leather straps attached with thread still adhere to the button holes. The straps seem to be made from pants of the same material.
A rusty rifle with leather sling lay next to the dead man, as well as three lenses with frames of non-ferrous metal, pear wood and horn that were part of binoculars.
According to experts, the optical device was binoculars with a cover and a thread made of horn and a non-ferrous eye-piece cap that can be opened from the side. Nose-pieces and casings of unknown material (paper, cardboard or parchment) are missing.
he weapon is a 16 mm calibre full stocked single-shot muzzleloading rifle with octagon barrel, seven riflings and underhammer percussion lock. Overall length is 120 cm, barrel length is 85.5 cm,
(picture 6 a, b).
The flat front sight has a sight groove and the rear part of the barrel features a tube sight.
The walnut stock has stampings and plenty of floral carvings on both sides and behind the barrel. The lower end of the stock includes a bullet case with a lid containing 16 mm calibre bullets.
Lock and trigger are located before the trigger guard with the hammer on the cap nipple. Inside the trigger guard there is a double set trigger with a broken set trigger blade and a thin firing trigger blade.
The 87-cm wooden ramrod is located beneath the barrel. The thread for the bullet puller is attached opposite the ramrod’s end in octagon brass cases (picture 6 c).
Furthermore, the discovery team from 1929 found a silver wind-up pocket watch with a case coated with varnish imitating tortoise shell (picture 7).
The watch face was painted and, according to the police report, the hands had stopped moving by the time of discovery at
3:30 am. The back of the watch features a round recess for inserting the watch key. The bottom part of the watch case is lined with a green and white fabric, the short hand is fire gilded. The following items are missing: The clasp for opening and closing the case, the watch bow, the watch face, the watch crystal and the long hand.

At that time, police identified the human remains as those of Norbert Mattersberger aka Spiegelburger from Kaltenhaus/Matrei, East Tyrol. He had been reported missing since 1839, not having returned from a chamois hunt.
Norbert Mattersberger was born to Gregor and Anna Mattersberger in Matrei on
July 2, 1796, as the youngest of five children. He last worked as a farm labourer.
The remains of this man, who was 43 years old when reported missing, were entombed according to the register book in Kals at the
 Grossglockner on August 14, 1929.

Analysis and Interpretation

Evidence in the case of the glacier corpse from the Gradetzkees include small artefacts, a police report, newspaper reports and statements from people involved in the find.

A capital “M”, stemming from a not yet identified brand, had been stamped on the clasp knife’s hot blade. It might date back to the early 1900s. The binoculars, the white metal buttons and the wind-up pocket watch might be from the first quarter of the 19th century as well.
As for the weapon, the question arises of how a farm labourer was able to acquire a rifle that was not introduced for use by the Austrian army until 1854, 20 years later. Percussion rifles     stand at the end of the development of muzzleloading rifles and were wide-spread in
Europe between 1830 and 1850. The heyday of their usage lasted about half a century. Several British gunsmiths claimed the invention of muzzleloading rifles in 1820. The percussion lock was usually located on the upside of the rifle. However, underhammer locks, like the one here, were rare. Their advantage was that during shooting, the flash did not blind the shooter or impair vision. So this kind of rifle was sometimes appreciated for hunting. Since there are hardly any abrasions, the rifle from the Gradetzkees seems to have been in use for a short time only. It must have been expensive because at that time, it was a state-of-the art weapon with special features. The stock had been damaged at some point, resulting in the loosening of the connection between the barrel and the stock. This damage had been roughly repaired (by its second owner, probably the discovered man himself?) with an iron band, which might have been a functional success (picture 6) but has diminished the rifle’s value.
The barrel has an engraved symbol on it that does not give any hint of its manufacturer or owner due to corrosion.
An iron band attached over an ornamented part of the rifle’s surface indicates that the rifle was either given as a present, bought second hand or stolen. The front and the rear part of the barrel had been roughly mended with wire.

So can the 1839 hunting trip be considered poaching? Didn’t it take until the Revolution of 1848 that shooting rights were turned into an aristocratic privilege? This is right in a way.
However, the following explanations are necessary. The rifle as a symbol of full masculinity    must not be underestimated in farming societies. Norbert Schindler’s research conducted on poaching in the Archbishopric of Salzburg, which also included Matrei in the
East Tyrol until it was secularized, merits particular attention in this regard.

Saving money was the predominant method of young men of the upper classes to acquire this sought-after weapon. This reminds us of the young women’s custom of collecting dowry. In the course of the 18th century, the serving and small farming classes had succeeded in undermining the national gun prohibition law that was aimed at them, the underprivileged majority of the population. They became gun owners, too. This is explained partly by the fact that the feudal authority in this remote area was too weak to take effective measures for preventing it.
The stocks of the poachers’ rifles were often ornamented with brass fittings, expensive antler craft and artistic wood carvings. Poachers wanted to be quasi-official hunters.
It is interesting that all relevant images of 19th century poachers lack depiction of underhammer rifles, while exhibition texts in the poaching museum in Bad Mitterndorf/Styria describe underhammer rifles as typical of poachers.
Special rifle constructions were soon collected by official bodies, which is proven by the fact that on
 September 26, 1912, the kk Ministry of the Interior issued a decree saying all antiquated weapons were to be turned in. The decree further indicated that rifles already confiscated and those later confiscated according to hunting and gun law were to be listed in a catalogue. All confiscated weapons had to be handed in to the regional political authorities until late January.  

It is notable that the regional political authorities, ie members of the monument protection committee, directors of public museums, well-known collectors and experts were invited to inspect the guns.
At the inspection, these people were asked to select the weapons suitable for public collections due to their artistic and technical finesse or their originality (referred to as “poacher’s rifles”), and to send them to the kk Ministry of the Interior.
After this excursus, we return to the police report about the corpse from the Gradetzkees and attempt to compile a list of the missing objects.

The body’s head and right lower leg are missing. Skulls separated from the torso tend to roll downhill and, according to analogies, sometimes do not stop rolling until they are far away from where the glacier has melted. A hint was made by a man from the mid 20th century that the hut ranger of the Sudetendeutschen Hütte had found a human skull during his working time and buried it in the moraine area. The incident was not reported to official sources since   this might have caused problems with the reopening of the hut. The right lower leg and some of the soft parts are likely to have been carried away by birds or beasts of prey.

The missing equipment includes shoes, a gunpowder box, percussion caps, the watch crystal, the watch chain, the watch bow and the second hand of the watch, glass lenses, horn parts, a backpack, crampons, a hat, socks or leg bandages and a Spornstecken (which was later found nearby according to the Lienzer Tageszeitung).

Unfortunately there is no medico-legal report. At the start of the thirties of the 20th century, there was no reason for it because the man had been identified and his death was reported to have occurred without external intervention.
Due to the lack of autopsy, we do not have verifiable information about age and gender or potential evidence of a fight and its consequences such as injuries or gunshot wounds.
If an exhumation was carried out even after 163 years, today’s forensic medicine with its state-of-the-art techniques could reveal important information about how the person died.

In 1929, the Lienzer Nachrichten wrote a story suggesting that a crime was involved in the death of the poacher on the Gradetzkees. Since it was just a small notice in the newspaper, it was hardly intended to be a sensational article. This story goes that in Heiligenblut/Carinthia, an infamous poacher called Angerer, who had died 30 years ago, pushed a Tyrolean “hunter” down a cliff in the Muntanitz area and threw the dead body into a crevasse. He deeply regretted his actions, and on his deathbed he confessed the crime to some friends who at that time lived in Heiligenblut.
However, was the glacier corpse correctly identified as Norbert "Bertl" Mattersberger?
Police investigations were only partially made and the written report was very short. As already pointed out in the introduction, there exists just one photograph of the find. There is no map of the find spot such as the exemplary one of the location where the mercenary soldier from the Theodulpass was found. The small artefacts are well preserved, which suggests few shear forces in the motion of the glacier.
This manuscript is an attempt to challenge the phenomenon of glacier corpses based on a rather new example whose history and interpretation remain incomplete. It was not intended as a cultural anthropological study of poachers, whose latest representative, Pius Walder from the Villgratental in the
 East Tyrol, was tragically shot to death in the eighties of the 20th century. The aim was to reconstruct the story of an individual. A lot of evidence points to poaching and death through accident.

Another important issue regards new find spots due to glacial melting in the next decades. Glacial finds, preserving organic material for thousands of years, represent a future source for cultural history. A source that needs to be handled with care.

Picture comments

Picture 1: Dorferkees, East Tyrol. Around 1875 (above) and 1927 (below). Photograph: Würthle&S u. H. Kinzl

Picture 2: Umbalkees north-east of Essenener Hütte before 1941. Photograph: Dina Mariner, Lienz

Picture 3: Umbalkees, East Tyrol. Recovery of the Junkers 52 in 2002. Photograph: Mountain rescue team of Prägraten at the Grossvenediger.

Picture 4: Gradetzkees, Kals at the Grossglockner/East Tyrol. Body of Norbert Mattersberger. Photograph: A. Hanser, Kals

Picture 5: Gradetzkees. Clasp knife with animal head-shaped wooden handle. Drawing: A. Blaickner, Innsbruck.

Picture 6: Gradetzkees. Muzzleloading rifle with underhammer lock. Drawing: A. Blaickner, Innsbruck.

Picture 7: Gradetzkees. Wind-up pocket watch. Photograph: H. Stadler


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