An afterlife for the sole

Happy New Year!

Hope you all had a good holiday season. Down on the Walbrook we had a short break with a lot of our staff working between Christmas and New Year. Despite the wet weather we had a number of good days on site, finding lots more timber within large dumps of organic material. We have also been finding a large amount of leather due to excellent preservation in the waterlogged soil. A number of our archaeologists on site have not seen leather in such good condition; as such it has sparked a great deal of excitement and interest. One of our archaeologists, Owen Humphreys, decided to write a blog about some of the shoes that we have found on site recently:

Leathergoods may not normally survive archaeologically, but in the damp conditions of the Walbrook valley we have been blessed to discover numerous delicate leather objects. By far the most common are shoes, so here is a quick rundown of a few that we have found so far.

Reconstructing these shoes can be difficult; the soft leather uppers rarely survive, so normally we are just left with the tough soles.

A pair of Roman soles (c) MOLA 2012
A pair of Roman soles (c) MOLA 2012

However, contrary to popular belief, we know from some of the few well preserved shoes that the Romans did not just wear open sandals. This little pair has an enclosed toe, and may therefore have formed a fully enclosed shoe or a slipper.

Front view of the child's shoe (c) MOLA 2012
Conservation picture of the child’s shoe (c) MOLA 2012
Side view of the child's shoe (c) MOLA 2012
Side view of the child’s shoe (c) MOLA 2012
Side view of the shoe, showing the multiple layers of stitched sole (c) MOLA 2012
Side view of the shoe, showing the multiple layers of stitched sole (c) MOLA 2012

Sizing shoes is difficult as the leather is always shrinking. Pre- and post-conservation drawings show that they shrink by around 10% during conservation alone. Given that shrinkage will be affected by factors as diverse as whether the shoe is nailed or stitched, or where on the animal the leather came from, it is impossible to say accurately how much they will have shrunk during centuries of burial. Nevertheless, the small size of this shoe indicates that it may have belonged to a child.

Another interesting type of shoe is the carbatina.

A pair of reconstructed carbatinae (c) Owen Humphreys 2009
A pair of reconstructed carbatinae (c) Owen Humphreys 2009

The whole shoe is made of a single piece of leather, which is stitched up the heel and gathered around the foot by a leather thong. This fragment is from the heel of a carbatina.

Carbatina heel with openwork decoration (c) MOLA 2012
Carbatina heel with openwork decoration (c) MOLA 2012
Carbatina heel showing holes for stitching (c) MOLA 2012
Carbatina heel showing holes for stitching (c) MOLA 2012

Though this one is relatively plain, carbatinae often have elaborate openwork designs cut into them, making them more hole than shoe. This, and their lack of sole reinforcement, imply that they were only for indoor or summer wear. Thin-soled sandals, often with toe-shaped ends and decorated insoles, may also have been used in this way.

The most famous type of Roman shoe, however, is the caliga. Early on in the new series of Walbrook excavations, a particularly well preserved example was found.

Roman caliga boots (c) MOLA 2012
Roman caliga boots (c) MOLA 2012

These were sandal-like boots, with heavily nailed soles built up from many layers of cowhide. They are almost always found in large sizes, and are often interpreted as shoes with a particular association with military activity.

The photos of excavated shoes in this blog were taken on site. Shoes, and all leather items, are kept wet and packaged carefully on site before they are sent to the office where they will be cleaned and looked at by a specialist.

You can learn more about Roman shoes here.

 

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