What is 1,000 years older than the pyramids of and 400 years older than Stonehenge? Don't try, you won't guess: an old shoe.
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A perfectly preserved 5,500 year old shoe, the oldest leather shoe in the world, was discovered by a team of international archaeologists. The cow-hide shoe is in perfect condition and it was made of a single piece of leather and was shaped to fit the wearer's foot. It 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 as a precursor to the modern shoe-tree.
It is not known whether the shoe belonged to a man or woman, because although it is small (European size 37), the shoe could well have fitted a man from that era. The cave is situated in the Vayotz Dzor province of Armenia, on the Armenian, Iranian, Nackhichevanian and Turkish borders, and was known to regional archaeologists due to its visibility from the highway below.
The stable, cool and dry conditions in the cave resulted in exceptional preservation of the various objects that were found, which included large containers, many of which held well-preserved wheat and barley, apricots and other edible plants. The 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, preserving them beautifully over the millennia!
Three samples were taken in order to determine the absolute age of the shoe and all three tests produced the same results. The archaeologists cut two small strips of leather off the shoe and sent one strip to the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford and another to the University of California – Irvine Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility. A piece of grass from the shoe was also sent to Oxford to be dated and both shoe and grass were shown to be the same age.
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 in the US. 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 artefacts found in the cave.
Interestingly, the shoe is very similar to the "pampooties" worn on the Aran Islands in the West of Ireland up to the 1950s. Enormous similarities exist between the manufacturing technique and style of this ancient shoe and those found across Europe at later periods, suggesting that this type of shoe was worn for thousands of years across a huge region. ■