di Davide Marchetta
Bolzano, March 28 - The museum housing Italy's famous Iceman mummy marked its 15th birthday Thursday amid expansion plans to cope with the ever-increasing flow of visitors eager to see the prehistoric man in his northern Italian hometown of Bolzano. Officials at the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum, where the 5,300-year-old Copper Age hunter is kept in a refrigerated cell, said the venue might be merged with the nearby civic museum in the capital of the Alto Adige (South Tyrol) region. Since the archaeological museum was inaugurated on March 28, 1998, the Iceman, also known as Oetzi, from the Alpine valley where he was found in 1991, has attracted more than 3.5 million visitors. In other marks of his renown, he boasts more than 5.5 million Google hits, an ice-cream flavour created in his name, and an iPad and iPhone app. Created last month, the new app lets youngsters learn about the Iceman's life and the stream of scientific discoveries made about him. The application aims to provide "fun ways to get to know Europe's oldest natural human mummy", including games featuring his well-known tattoos - rumoured to have been copied by Brad Pitt - and "his extraordinary gear including his bow and arrow", said Bolzano's Larixpress publishing house. New discoveries about the world's oldest 'wet' mummy are being made all the time. Last May traces of blood were found on him, the oldest blood sample ever found. A year ago the first complete DNA map of the ancient man found that he was lactose intolerant, or unable to digest a sugar in milk. The study also showed Oetzi had a predisposition towards heart disease, a finding corroborated by the thickened arteries in the body. The mapping said the Iceman probably suffered from Lyme Disease, a tick-borne infection whose symptoms may include fever, headache, fatigue, depression, and a characteristic circular skin rash. According to an international team, the rugged mountain man also shared a common ancestor with the inhabitants of today's Sardinia and Corsica. He had brown eyes and his blood group was O, the team said. The Iceman attracts thousands of visitors a year to his Bolzano home. He had an anniversary bash there in September 2011 when the purpose-built museum celebrated 20 years since two German tourists spotted him peeping out of the glacier. "Oetzi has been great for us, the city and tourism in the entire region," Archaeology Museum Director Angelika Fleckinger said as the mummy, 2,000 years older than Tutankhamen, 'welcomed' kids to play with prehistoric weapons and offered 'neolithic' food for visitors. Fleckinger said the anniversary celebrations had a "special resonance" for her. "Sometimes I think it is so strange. He died 5,000 years ago yet this person, this Iceman, has become an important part of my life". Forensic science has made great strides since the Iceman was found in the Oetzal Alps by a couple of German hikers on September 19, 1991. "We know so much about him, that he had brown eyes and a few diseases, was getting on a bit at 46, and died from an arrow wound. "But we will maybe never know what really happened in the last hours and minutes of his life". The Iceman may still be something of a mystery but his generosity to his adoptive home town is no secret. According to the most recent figures, the refrigerated man earns a total of four million euros each year for restaurants, hotels and souvenir-sellers, Fleckinger said. Year round, except for Christmas Day, New Year's Day and May Day, he also raises 3.5 million in ticket fees at the restructured bank that houses him. That means he pays about half of the Bolzano Archaeological Museum's costs, drawing in over one thousand people a day. This compares to the average of 15% which other Italian museums defray out of visitors' pockets. The Iceman's status as a global star is reflected by the 26 documentaries made about him by the world's TV companies. He is perhaps the world's most famous mummy outside Egypt. The body, which dates back to 3000 BC, has spawned a global cottage industry of studies. As well as discoveries about what he ate and what illnesses he suffered from, there has been a keen debate on how he died from the arrow wound found in his body - initially, it was thought, in a fight with rival hunters. One theory says he was assassinated in a tribal power struggle. Another suggested he was the victim of ritual sacrifice. Another study - fiercely contested by patriotic residents of the formerly Austrian region who see Oetzi as their proud forefather - reckons he was cast out from his community because a low sperm count rendered him childless. An eerie aura has also grown around the Iceman because of the allegedly mysterious deaths of seven people who came into contact with him soon after he was found.