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Sole Survivor: World's Oldest Leather Shoe Found In Armenian Cave

A researcher holds the ancient shoe at the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography.
A researcher holds the ancient shoe at the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography.
By Gayane Danielian
YEREVAN -- The world's oldest leather shoe -- 400 years older than Stonehenge and 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza -- 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 June 9. The shoe is made of a single piece of cowhide leather, with intricate laces, and was shaped to fit the wearer's right foot.

It is 24.5 centimeters long -- a relatively diminutive size 37 by contemporary European standards, or U.S. women's size 7 -- 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 a cave in the Armenian mountains in 2008 by Diana Zardaryan, a doctoral student at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences. The shoe was stuffed with grass and had been perfectly preserved under layers of sheep dung.

Zardaryan, in a published account of the extraordinary find, said she was "amazed" to see that even the shoelaces were preserved.

Pavel Avetisian, the institute’s director, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service the find was "unique."

"Usually leather doesn't survive in soil. Exceptional conditions are needed for buried leather items to be preserved," Avetisian said.

Scientists at radiocarbon laboratories in California and Oxford, England, have been working since 2008 to accurately determine the age of the shoe.

"We've had dozens of tests at the world's leading laboratories, to make sure that we don't spread any unverified information to the world," Avetisian said.

Fiber Before Leather

The oldest known footwear in the world is a pair of fiber 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.

Ron Pinhasi of University College Cork in Ireland led the team of Armenian, Irish, and U.S. researchers working in the Armenian cave since 2007. He said while it was small, 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.

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 the 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,” he said. “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 Pennsylvania's Widener University, 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," said Rothman, who was not involved with the discovery.

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 American and Irish researchers will return to Armenia this week to continue exploring the cave, which has been given the designation 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. But we can now feel that it is slowly hardening,” Avetisian explains. “American specialists are now working on that problem, and some time later they will tell us how to preserve it and in what conditions."
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Comments
     
by: Donovan from: PA
June 10, 2010 16:53
Armenia has pretty well developed archeological science so why do they need help from 'Irish scientists'? Since when is Ireland a powerhouse of science? Sounds like joke. Clearly the cave survived without them for all this time and the shoe is intact. Don't let them carry the Armenian shoe out of the country- a bad idea on several levels
In Response

by: CR from: Moscow
June 13, 2010 15:22
It says it was an Irish led research group. Nowhere does it say Ireland is a powerhouse of science.

by: Ivan from: Sofia
June 11, 2010 06:57
And why does any of this matter?

by: Berge from: Yerevan
June 11, 2010 12:08
Armenians were wearing fashionable shoes when Europeans were still in the dark savage ages.
In Response

by: RPH from: USA
June 11, 2010 17:40
Because it would be accurate to characterize the people living in the region at that time Armenians (please note sarcasm).
In Response

by: Donovan from: PA
June 16, 2010 00:50
Yes, they were Armenians. Why, who you think they were, Latvians??
In Response

by: Stan from: Toronto
June 15, 2010 14:13
:-) My dear Berge, No one knows if it were Armenians who lived in those parts of the world 5,500 years ago. I understand your obsession with claiming your nation to be the oldest in the world, but trully - nothing is out there to prove that the shoes were worrn by an ancient fashionista Armenian gal... Do they show a name tag? There were lots of ancient other tribes who lived in the area which is now called 'Armenia'.
:-)
In Response

by: Anonymous
June 18, 2010 09:23
Hmmm... Stan, perhaps you could name a few "tribes" that populated that particular area?
To my knowledge it had been always inhabited by Armenians or earlier, by proto-Armenians. Morover, there was another earlier discovery of a shoe almost identical to this one at a site in Northern Armenia, but much younger in age. This one belonged to the period and place when it can be in all certainty ascribed to Armenians. So the likelihood that this shoe was worn by an Armenian ("fashionista" gal or a farmer guy, let the experts decide) is very high. Moreover, given special attitude to shoes by ancient Armenians (like granting a (single) red shoe by the king to people who made great service to the country and the king, and shoe-making traditions throughout centuries to current days, it could be safely assumed that this shoe is Armenian.

by: Paul from: London, UK
June 12, 2010 02:29
Wow, that's an amazing discovery. Considering they are 5,500 years old, they look like a pretty good pair of shoes! www.shoesnews.org

by: Rail from: Halle
June 18, 2010 16:05
Same stories again, Armenians have found the oldest shoe in the world, Armenians are oldest nation whatever in the world.
I have another idea, I think and I can say it with strong facts, as a historian of old ages, that this shoe belonged a Mongolian man. This shoe shows mongolian type of shoe making, and at that time in my view Armenians did not carry shoes, they were barefooted, but they had strong feet. This is also one of facts that I can prove with my archeological investigation.
So give this shoe Mongolian, genuine owner of this shoe.

by: Artavazd from: Armenia
June 23, 2010 08:22
Calm down everybody. All Indoeuropean nations have been descended from the same place - Armenia. Maybe during the Paleolithic period there were no distinct nations yet, but during the Chalcolithic period the ancestors of most of the contemporary nations had already left the region. So it is very likely that the shoe may have been worn by the ancestors of the contemporary Armenians. It couldn't have been worn by a Canadian, Stan. Mongolians, Rall? I haven't heard of a more absurd idea. Maybe you could bring in some of your "strong facts?" Mongolians appeared in the region only in the 14th century AD, almost 7000 later. I guess you wouldn't know about this, since you are "a historian of old ages:"

It is interesting though, that every time, when archaeologists discover an artifact on the territory of Armenia, they first seem to be very cautious to affiliate it to the Armenian culture. The article above is a very good example. in addition, many do vigorously look for other cultural associations, often intentionally disregarding the possibility of an Armenian association. It is still prevalent tendency in history and archaeology to look for the motherland of Armenians elsewhere but not in the Armenian Upland. In contrast when an artifact is found elsewhere, like for example, on territory of Turkey, is readily recognized as Turkish, while having left overlooked a simple fact that Turks appeared in the region (while being driven by Mongols) only in the 11th century AD.

by: Alex from: Estonian
June 25, 2010 22:21
"Armenia, the genes' DNA, and no relatives in Azerbaijan and Georgia! "Armenian genes" is closest to the Jews, Jordan, Palestine and Kurdish. Armenia, the Caucasus are not the people!
In Response

by: reader
June 28, 2010 01:29
what language is this, son?
In Response

by: Artavazd from: Armenia
June 28, 2010 20:28
Dear Alex from Estonia, it is hard to accurately pinpoint what you are trying to convey, but the overall hatred towards Armenians is obvious.

Your first point, as far as I understand, is that Armenians are not related to Azeris and Georgians. I don't know about Georgians, but Armenians, being an Indo-European nation themselves, are definitely not related to Azeris, since Azeris are actually turks and have appeared in Caucasus in the middle of the 11th century AD. After driving the indigenous population of Albanians out of the region up to the North (those poor Albanians are the people of Dagestan now) they settled on the ancient lands of Albania and currently claim to be lawful inheritors of the occupied from Albanians territories. Therefore, it is the Azeris=turks, who do not belong in Caucasus, not Armenians (I understand this is your final point). Armenians have been the indigenous peoples of Caucasus from the prehistoric times. All Indo-European nations have brunched out from the same trunk, and therefore share the same root words in their languages. The language of Azeris does not belong in the group since it is atually a dialect of Turkish.

When looking for closest to Armenians' genes, you missed to mention Persians, actually Iranians. I don't know about Palestine or Kurdish associations, but the Ten Tribes of Israel dissolved among Armenians after their Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC. The tribe of Judah actually returned back to Palestine after the Babylonian captivity. So, it is less likely to have genes of Judah among Armenians. Although, during the 1st century BC, after Tigranes the Great conquered Judea a lot of Jews settled around Lake Van in south-west Armenia. Later they may have moved northward. As a matter of fact the Bagratuni dynasty, the lineage of the last kings in Armenia, has Jewish ancestry. Two brothers Bagarat and Shambat, sons of a Jewish king slew their father, fled to Armenian and asked for asylum. They were granted asylum, also some portions of land. They later became one of the most influential house of nobles in Armenia, and centuries later, in the 10th century AD, lineage of kings which was terminated by the invasion of Turkic tribes from the far East.

You should do your homework, and take some responsibility before posting a comment (not speaking of watching your language). Otherwise your claims will always lack any credibility.
In Response

by: jack from: usa
July 07, 2010 06:43
bravo artavazd, finally some sense and most importantly: facts.

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