Friday, May 25, 2018

Shoes: From the Hallstatt Era to the Romans

The period between the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age is considered to be the dividing line between prehistory and history. Archaeologists refer to this as The Hallstatt era (800 to 400 BCE). Shoes found from this period suggest well-developed forms of leatherwork.

The style of shoe was moccasin-like and made from one-piece pigskin or deer hide. An oval with slits for thonging up to more complex patterns with excess leather removed for a better fit. The shoes were held together with soft stitching made from stiff leather (thongs) straps of the same materials. The openings through which the straps are drawn were wedge-shaped with holes made with a sharp knife with a single-sided sharpened cutting edge. Thin leather was used to make the shoe flexible enough to mould to the foot. Being made from one piece the sole was thin and offers little protection from rough terrain. It was common to pad the inside of the shoe with grass, straw or wool. Other finds elsewhere indicate the use of straw, as an insulating insole was essential when worn in cold dry climates.

New shoes in the Iron Age (1200 BCE – 1 BCE) may not have appeared quite the same as we would recognize them today. A process of ‘wearing in’ would allow the leather to mould itself to the feet. This involved plastic deformation of the leather enhanced by high temperatures caused by dynamic friction and sweat. The absence of sweat marks on the inside of the shoes found from the period suggests feet and legs were covered. To protect the foot from moisture the leather was tanned, chamois style using animal fat or natural vegetable fat. Vegetable tanning was common before the Romans and used natural oils, fats or smoking the leather. These techniques meant leather goods only survived in specific conditions.

By the time of the Romans (31 BCE), craftsmen discovered how to make leather more durable and waterproof. Many believe this is why Roman shoes have survived. Shoe finds from the Iron Age indicate unique wear marks and scuffs consistent with occupational footwear e.g. someone working on a ladder and stonecutter. Close examination of the prehistoric footwear revealed evidence of repair with skill and appeared to be a routine maintenance.

Reviewed 25/05/2018

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