World's oldest leather shoe found in Armenia

Friday, June 11, 2010

Areni village as seen from Areni Church

What is believed to be the world's oldest leather shoe, over 5,500 year old, has been found in a cave in Armenia by a team of archaeologists.

The Armenian shoe is in a perfectly preserved condition and is a few hundred years older than the one found on Ötzi the Iceman, making it the oldest piece of leather footwear in the world, and the oldest footwear yet found in Europe. Researchers published details in the journal PLoS ONE.

The leather shoe was found in a cave dubbed Areni-1, near the village of Areni in the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia, on the Iranian and Turkish borders. "I was amazed to find that even the shoe-laces were preserved," recalled Diana Zardaryan, the Armenian PhD student who made the discovery.

According to researchers, the shoe, made of cow-hide, consists of only one leather piece and was probably customised to the wearer's foot. It was relatively small, measuring the corresponding to European size 37 or US size 7 women, however, it could have been worn by a man.

It was kept in excellent condition by a thick layer of sheep excrement, which acted as a seal, helping it survive the millennia. The shoe contained grass, although the archaeologists were uncertain as to whether this was to used to maintain the shape of the shoe and/or prepare it for storage.

"We thought initially that the shoe and other objects were about 600-700 years old because they were in such good condition," said co-author Dr. Ron Pinhasi from the University College Cork in Ireland. "It was only when the material was dated by the two radiocarbon laboratories in Oxford and in California that we realised that the shoe was a few hundred years older than the shoes worn by Ötzi the Iceman".

The shoe and the cave will continue to be researched. "We do not know yet what the shoe or other objects were doing in the cave or what the purpose of the cave was", said Pinhasi, "We know that there are children's graves at the back of the cave but so little is known about this period that we cannot say with any certainty why all these different objects were found together".

Currently, the oldest known footwear are sandals made from sagebrush bark, found in Fort Rock Cave, Oregon in the United States. These shoes were discovered in 1938, and have been dated to about 10,000 years before present.

Discoveries within the cave move early bronze-age cultural activity in Armenia back by about 800 years. Additional discoveries yielded an extensive array of Copper Age artifacts dating to between 6,200 and 5,900 years ago.


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