(Reuters, RFE/RL's Armenian service/Gayane Danielian) - The world's oldest leather shoe, 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and 400 years older than Stonehenge in Britain, has been found perfectly preserved in a cave in Armenia.
The 5,500-year-old shoe was discovered by a team of international archaeologists, who reported details of their finding on Wednesday. It is made of a single piece of cow-hide leather, had laces, and was shaped to fit the wearer's foot.
It is 24.5 cm long, 7.6 cm to 10 cm wide, and dates back to around 3,500 BC, an era known as the Chalcolithic period, or Copper Age, when humans are believed to have invented the wheel, domesticated horses and produced other innovations.
The shoe was found in 2008 by Diana Zardaryan, a doctoral student at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, 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 said in the report of the find, which was published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS One.
Pavel Avetisian, the institute director, described the find as “unique.” “Usually leather does not survive in soil,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Thursday. “Exceptional conditions are need for the preservation of buried leather items.”
Scientists in radiocarbon laboratories in California and in Oxford, England, have been working since 2008 to try to put an accurate date on the shoe. “We have had dozens of tests at the world’s leading laboratories to make sure that we don’t spread any unverified information to the world,” said Avetisian.
The oldest known footwear in the world are sandals thought to be around 2,500 years older than the Armenian leather shoe. They were found in a cave in Missouri in the United States.
“It is not known whether the shoe belonged to a man or woman,” said Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork in Ireland, who has led the team of Armenian, Irish and U.S. researchers working in the cave since 2007. He said while it was small, matching a modern-day European size 37 or U.S. size 7, the shoe “could well have fitted a man from that era.”
The cave where the discovery was made is in Armenia’s southeastern Vayots Dzor province. Pinhasi said the stable, cool and dry conditions in the cave meant the various objects found there were very well preserved. Avetisian likewise attributed that to “the climate inside the cave.”
The team said preservation was also helped by the fact that the floor of the cave was covered by a thick layer of sheep dung which acted as a solid seal over the objects, keeping them safe for several millennia.
Other finds included large ceramic containers, many of which held wheat, barley, apricots and other edible plants, as well as skulls of three adolescents with what Avetisian described as brain remnants.
“Clay vessels found there are such that we presume they had also distilled wine there,” said Armenia’s top archaeologist. “If ongoing laboratory tests confirm that as well, it will mean we have found the world’s oldest wine-making facility.”
“It’s sort of a Pompeii moment, except without the burning,” Mitchell Rothman, an anthropologist and Chalcolithic expert at Widener University who is not involved in the expedition, told “The New York Times.” “The shoe is really cool, and it’s certainly something that highlights the unbelievable kinds of discoveries at this site.”
“The larger importance, though, is where the site itself becomes significant. You have the transition really into the modern world, the precursor to the kings and queens and bureaucrats and pretty much the whole nine yards,” Rothman said.
The paper also quoted Adam Smith, another American anthropologist who has done separate research in the cave, as saying: “It’s an embarrassment of riches because the preservation is so remarkable.”
According to Avetisian, the U.S. and Irish researchers will return to Armenia this week to continue exploring the cave designated Areni-1. He said the Armenian side also needs their expertise and advice on how to preserve the shoe at the National History Museum in Yerevan, where it is due to be put on permanent display.
“When we unearthed the shoe, it was very soft and flexible,” explained Avetisian. “But we can now feel that it is slowly hardening. American specialists are now working on that problem, and some time later they will tell us how to preserve it and in what conditions.”