Oldest Shoe Preserved in Sheep Dung

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This well-preserved and complete shoe was recovered at the base of a Chalcolithic pit in the cave in Armenia.
Department of Archaeology University College Cork, Cork Ireland

THE GIST

- A 5,500-year-old shoe was found in a cool, dry cave in Armenia.

- The right-footed moccasin was buried in sheep dung, which likely helped preserve it.

- The shoe is roughly the size of an American size 7 woman's shoe.

The ultimate vintage shoe -- a 5,500-year-old leather lace-up moccasin -- has been found buried in sheep dung in a cave in Armenia on the Iranian and Turkish borders.

The cool, dry cave and the thick layer of sheep dung, which acted as a solid seal, kept the world's oldest piece of leather footwear in perfect condition.

Click here to explore more images of the discovery.

Designed a thousand years before the Great Pyramid of Giza, the soft-soled shoe was stuffed with loose, unfastened grass. The right-footed shoe (the left has not been discovered) is 24.5 cm long and 7.6 to 10 cm wide (9.6 by 2.9 to 3.9 inches) (U.S. size 7 women). It was probably worn by an early farmer living in the mountains of the Vayotz Dzor province.

"We were all amazed to see its state of preservation and the fine details such as the laces, eyelets and the straw inside it," said Ron Pinhasi of Ireland's University College Cork and lead author of the research published in PLoS One, a journal of the Public Library of Science.

"It is not known whether the shoe belonged to a man or woman. While small, the shoe could well have fitted a man from that era," Pinhasi told Discovery News.

The archaeologists are also unsure whether the grass was used to keep the foot warm or to maintain the shape of the shoe like a modern shoe tree.

The moccasin-like footwear was simply created from a single piece of cow hide that was wrapped around the foot. A leather thong was used to stitch the back and top of the shoe through four and 15 sets of eyelets respectively.

The shoe might have been deliberately buried in the cave during a ritual. Indeed, the archaeologists also found three pots, each containing a child's skull, along with containers of well preserved barley, wheat, apricot and other edible plants.

"We thought initially that the shoe and other objects were about 600-700 years old because they were in such good condition," Pinhasi said. "It was only when the material was dated that we realized that the shoe was older by a few hundred years than the shoes worn by Oetzi, the Iceman," he added, referring to Europe's oldest natural human mummy, which dates back 5,300 years.

Pinhasi and colleagues cut two small strips of leather off the shoe and sent one strip to the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford and another to the University of California-Irvine Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility.

All three tests produced the same results, dating both shoe and grass to the Chalcolithic period, around 3,500 B.C.

The oldest known footwear in the world are 7,500-year-old sandals made from plant material found in a cave in the Arnold Research Cave in Missouri.

Prior to the Armenian discovery, it was Oetzi, the mummy found frozen in the Alps, who wore the oldest known leather shoes. However, only parts of the Iceman's left and right footwear were recovered.

The mummy's footwear included an inner "sock" made of grass, and a separate sole and upper made of deer and bear leather held together by a leather strap.

"We now know that people were wearing shoes already 5,500 years ago and that these were not so different from the ones we had until recent times," Pinhasi said.

Indeed, the Chalcolithic shoe is very similar to the "pampooties" worn on the Aran Islands, in the West of Ireland, up to the 1950s.

"This suggests that shoes of this type were worn for millennia across a large and environmentally diverse geographic region," Pinhasi said.

According to Andre Veldmeijer, a Dutch archaeologist who specializes in ancient leatherwork, footwear and cordage, the find is very interesting and an important one.

"It clearly shows that footwear was common from the earliest times onwards. It would be interesting to know how the skin was processed into leather. Skin processing techniques not only indicate how familiar the people were with leather as a material, but might also inform us on the complexity of the society," Veldmeijer told Discovery News.

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