What's Older Than the Pyramids and Smells Worse Than a Mummy?

Published June 09, 2010


What were the fashion-conscious cave-dwellers wearing 5,500 years ago? Archaeologists may just have found out.

A perfectly preserved shoe, 1,000 years older than Egypt's Great Pyramid and 400 years older than Stonehenge, has been found -- buried in sheep dung in a cave in Armenia.

The 5,500 year-old shoe was discovered by a team of archaeologists in a cave in the Vayotz Dzor province of Armenia, on the Iranian and Turkish borders. The shoe is the oldest piece of leather footwear in the world, a fact that came as a shock to the discoverers.

"We thought initially that the shoe and other objects were about 600-700 years old because they were in such good condition," said Dr. Ron Pinhasi, an archaeologist with Ireland's University College Cork. "It was only when the material was dated by the two radiocarbon laboratories in Oxford, U.K., and in California, U.S. that we realized that the shoe was older by a few hundred years than the shoes worn by Otzi, the Iceman."

Otzi the Iceman was a well-preserved mummy found in an Austrian glacier in 1991, also wearing shoes. Otzi's shoes were surprisingly complex, said one Czech academic at the time. "I'm convinced that even 5,300 years ago, people had the equivalent of a cobbler who made shoes for other people," Petr Hlavacek, a footwear expert from Tomas Bata University in Zlin told The Telegraph.

The newly found cow-hide shoe -- cut and shaped from a single piece of leather -- dates to approximately 3,500 BC and is in stunningly perfect condition, thanks to the cool and dry conditions in the cave -- and the fact that its floor was covered by a thick layer of sheep, dung which acted as a solid seal over the objects. The cave also housed large containers, many of which held well-preserved wheat and barley, apricots and other edible plants. 

The shoe contained grass, although the archaeologists were uncertain as to whether this was to keep the foot warm or to maintain the shape of the shoe -- a precursor to the modern shoe-tree perhaps? Pinhasi couldn't determine whether the shoe belonged to a man or a woman. While small (approximately a woman's size 7), "the shoe could well have fitted a man from that era," he noted. 

The shoe was discovered by Armenian student Diana Zardaryan in a pit that also included a broken pot and sheep's horns. 

"I was amazed to find that even the shoe-laces were preserved," she recalled. "We couldn't believe the discovery," said Gregory Areshian, a research associate with UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, who was at the site when the shoe was found. "The crusts had sealed the archaeological deposits, and artifacts remained fresh dried, just like they were put in a can," he said.

The oldest known footwear in the world, to the present time, are sandals made of plant material, that were found in a cave in the Arnold Research Cave in Missouri. Other contemporaneous sandals were found in the Cave of the Warrior, Judean Desert, Israel, but these were not directly dated, so that their age is based on various other associated artifacts found in the cave. And those shoes were of such different styles that the researchers believe a wide variety of styles existed at the time. 

"Other 4th millennium discoveries of shoes (Italian and Swiss Alps), and sandals (Southern Israel) indicate that more than one type of footwear existed during the 4th millennium BC, and that we should expect to discover more regional variations in the manufacturing and style of shoes where preservation conditions permit," they wrote. 

But much about the shoe and the rest of the cave remains a mystery.

"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." The team will continue to excavate the many chambers of the cave.

 The team published its findings in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE.

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A perfectly preserved shoe, 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and 400 years older than Stonehenge in the UK, has been found in a cave in Armenia.

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