This Week In History: Sept. 18 – Sept. 24 

Ötzi the Iceman is displayed in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. Along with the bodily remains, many items were found on Ötzi that increase our understanding of his life including an axe, bow and arrow and various items of clothing fashioned out of animal skins. Photo courtesy of OetziTheIceman on Flickr.

From the snow-capped peaks of the Alps to the depths of the ocean, this week we’ll cover some incredible historical events and mysteries — some still shrouded in mystery today. 

On Sept. 19, 1991, two German tourists were hiking along the Öztal Alps, a region of mountains nestled between Italy and Austria. The pair happened to notice what appeared to be human remains sticking out of the ice, prompting them to believe that they had stumbled upon a murder scene. 

Unbeknownst to them, the tourists had discovered what is now considered the best preserved human remains from the Copper Age. The remains would quickly become a point of interest for many research institutes worldwide. 

Soon given the name Ötzi after the mountain range he was found in, it was determined that Ötzi lived between 3359 B.C. and 3105 B.C. Unique to the environment of the Alps, centuries of ice melts and shifts had exposed his body, which preserved remarkably well due to the slowing of decomposition by the extremely cold temperatures.  

Along with the bodily remains, many items were found on Ötzi that increase our understanding of his life including an axe, bow and arrow and various items of clothing fashioned out of animal skins.  

With these items signifying that Ötzi was potentially a hunter-scavenger or warrior, researchers would next set out to find his cause of death. After discovering an arrow wound, and knife marks in his hands as if attempting to block an attacker’s slash, studies concluded that the cause of death was bleeding out following an attack by other humans. 

The tourists’ initial suspicion that they had stumbled upon a murder scene was confirmed, and not just any murder scene — one from nearly 5,000 years ago.  

It is still left to conjecture how exactly Ötzi met his end; could it have been a misunderstanding with someone? Or a battle against rivals? Blood was found on his shoulder, indicating that he may have carried someone for some time and the arrow wound looked to be tended to, with the arrowhead removed from the body.  

While the age of the remains could make it an unsolvable mystery, the importance of Ötzi’s remains to our understanding of early European life is immeasurable, with research still conducted on them to this day. 

Shifting focus to the coasts of England, on Sept. 23, 1641, the English merchant ship, “Merchant Royal” would be lost at sea following intense storms. While shipwrecks occurred frequently in the early days of global trading, the Merchant Royal would be unique due to its incredible cargo of gold and silver, worth approximately $1.5 billion today.  

The ship was due to head home to England following years of trading across the Spanish West Indies. But as the captain was to depart from port, an opportunity arose to deliver a large amount of gold to the Spanish-controlled Netherlands to pay off military troops stationed there.  

Even for a ship battered by years of harsh work, carrying this cargo across the ocean was not an unusual trip for the ship to make. And for some time the journey went well, but issues suddenly arose when leaks in the ship’s hull became uncontrollable due to a faulty pump system, which — in tandem with harsh weather — would cause the ship to sink. 

Many expeditions have been launched to uncover the wreck, but nothing except the ship’s anchor has been found. Its location remains a mystery, despite the gold and silver enticing many to search. 

Another major event would occur on Sept. 18, 1793; the laying of the first cornerstone of the US Capitol Building by George Washington. After much deliberation between President Washington, his cabinet and architects, the iconic domed design would be settled upon and completed over the following years. 

Yet the construction of this building is marked by one mystery, as before Washington placed the cornerstone, he laid an inscribed silver plate to go underneath.  Despite many attempts to locate the plate through the use of metal detectors, neither the plate nor even the original cornerstone have been found. 

Moreover, sources differ on what the plate said, with some suggesting that the inscription celebrated Washington’s efforts throughout the Revolutionary War. White House architects and historians still search for the elusive plate and stone. 

And that concludes this week in history, see you next week!  

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