Today, three beautiful teenage girls are lounging around talking about getting nits. Lily says, “My mum once counted a hundred head lice off my head in just fifteen minutes!” The other two find this outrageous and gasp, hands clapped in disgust to their lipticked mouths. “And then,” Lily continues, “she made me bend down and sit for an hour with my head in a bucket of vinegar!” And the three of them absolutely explode with laughter at the ridiculous image this conjures. They are still shedding tears ten minutes later. I am still giggling too, but more out of disbelief. That someone so very lovely and intelligent could have a parent so very ill-informed.
Slightly to the bemusement (or perhaps it’s alarm) of my family, one of the books I have packed for a bit of light reading on our holiday is “The Ecology of Ectoparasitic Insects”. So — fleas, sheep-keds, bed-bugs and bat-flies as well as lice.
I confess, I do find it a little difficult to let go my fascination (=obsession) with insects and wherever I go I’m always partially on a bug hunt.
Through Strasbourg and on to the Austrian Lakes near Salzburg for a week, there is little to catch my eye even though the weather is warm enough for swimming in the Wolfgangsee most days.
For the next leg we head over the Alps to Trento, but break the journey in Bolzano to visit the ‘Ice Man’. Discovered in a glacier in the Otzaler Alps in 1991, the shrivelled mummified remains, nicknamed ‘Otzi’, turned out not to be a soldier or mountaineer, but a bronze-age hunter/ traveller/ shaman from 5300 years ago. The Museo Archeologico is dedicated to the display of this single and singular item. Despite the fact that they have to eke out this meagre relic over four floors, they do it brilliantly, and every scrap of clothing, twine, weaponry, tinder and his very body itself, is subjected to intensely detailed forensic analysis.
His last meal (bland oaty gritty gruel), his self-sufficiency (fungus tinder, repaired clothes and home-made footwear) and the manner of his death (stone-headed arrow in his back) are all use to try and weave a reconstructed history of this mystery man. There is an artist’s impression of his stern unshaven face and wild brown hair, a modern interpretation of his overcoat and cap to try on, even some dry grass stems to plait, but we still understand nothing of his mind, his motivation, or his personality.
But they missed a trick with his ectoparasitic insects. Much to my disappointment he had no lice, head or body, so very little head-to-head or body-to-body contact with his bronze age contemporaries. However, two fleas were found in the tatty remains of his leather and hide coat, so he bedded down in the occasional barn or animal pen. This tells the psycho-entomologist in me much about Otzi — it turns out he was an unsociable loner.