The earliest shoes in the archaeological record are a pair of sagebrush bark sandals dating from 7000-8000 BCE that were found at Fort Rock Cave in the United States. The presence of these well-preserved examples indicated that shoes were used widely throughout pre-historic times, and were likely far more complex than previously thought. These structures evolved over time, and in Europe ancient shoemaking processes are first evidenced by a sample of stitched leather from the Areni-1 cave complex in Armenia, which was dated to C. 3500 BCE. A more complete sample can be found in the affectionately named Ötzi the Iceman’s shoes, dating to 3300 BC. This well documented example featured brown bearskin bases, deerskin side panels, and bark string netting, indicating a high level of complexity. From these discoveries we can track the evolution of shoemaking from its earliest forms into something we would easily recognise today, the leather pump commonly seen in the Iron age.
Pictured: Areni-1 shoes, approx. 5500 years old.
The Iron Age
Conventionally defined as the period between 1200 B.C.E. and 600 BCE the Iron Age follows immediately on from the preceding Stone and Bronze Ages. The time span of the era actually varies by region, depending on when the first evidence of iron and steel tools appear. For example, in Great Britain the Iron age could be considered as recent as 800 BCE to 100 CE. Shoemaking in this period had advanced considerably, but was still mostly done by individuals rather than craftspeople and varied in complexity by region and status. Iron Age shoes are typically constructed from a single piece of leather. A row of tongues is gathered around the toes making the size adjustable, and there is an inverted Y-shaped seam at the heel. Cut-out ornamentation around the instep could be quite complex, and the lacing of the leather thongs varied as well.
Pictured: Iron Age Leather Sandal (Image by the Bergbau Museum)
The Shoemaking Process
The shoemaking process in the Iron Age varied between individuals, but there are some common steps to the process. After tanning the leather would have been cut to size for the individual’s feet with a section to wrap around the ankle and a set of tabs that could be laced around the foot. The back of the shoe would be sewn to form the three-dimensional shape, and then the leather was wetted and laced onto the foot, drying to conform to the shape of the owner’s foot. By adjusting the basic pattern and lacings, a variety of aesthetics could be achieved.
Pictured: Iron Age shoes (c. 400 BCE to 400 CE) found on body found in European bog. Photo by Robert Clark, September 2007 National Geographic
In the modern era, shoes in the Iron Age style are still produced by hobbyists, historical re-enactment groups, and some forms of dance that require soft soles.
Pictured: A set of shoes from Blumenthal Performing Arts
- Banner images taken from ‘Fashionable 2,000-year-old Roman shoe found in a well‘, published on Archaeological World, April 15th 2020. https://archaeology-world.com/fashionable-2000-year-old-roman-shoe-found-in-a-well/