Leather shoes from a Staffordshire Roman well
The Stoke-on-Trent Museum Archaeological Society (SOTMAS) was founded in 1958. We are a very active group of amateur, albeit very experienced, archaeologists, whose work includes excavating and recording, post-excavation work, surveying and archaeological research.
From 2003 to 2010 we spent the summer seasons excavating a 1st to 3rd century Romano British rural site, near Uttoxeter, Staffs.
We discovered a previously- unknown Roman road, workshops, pits and, notably, a well which we excavated to a depth of 8 metres. Among the numerous finds from this well were pottery, wood, coins, animal bones, a boxwood comb and seeds from the organic content. Our most exciting discovery from the well excavation, and in anaerobic conditions (i.e. no oxygen was present), were leather Roman shoes, a once- in-a-lifetime find.
Most Roman shoes found in Britain are from military sites: forts and associated towns. However, ours are from a rural settlement, showing the type of footwear worn by the ordinary people in the countryside.
The significant feature of the shoes is the long ankle straps, very rarely found in this country. All of the shoes have loops. Some inner soles are fixed by weaving leather thongs interlaced with the lower sole, thus stabilising the shoe. Some of the shoes have heel-stiffeners, as can be seen from our museum display or illustrated here.
In total we had remains of between 80 and 100 shoes, but many of these were fragmented. About 40 recognisable shoes were excavated i.e. soles, uppers, looped sections plus many, many smaller parts of shoes. Some were made from a single piece of leather ( carbatin). Others had separate uppers and soles with and without hobnails. Where hobnails were present, they were, largely, in excellent condition. The shoes were of various sizes, ranging from children’s shoes, through to large adults’. In fact, one shoe was the equivalent of a modern man’s size 12.
The shoes were obviously made on site, proved by the presence of off-cuts of leather, showing that we have not only a cobbler here, but also a shoemaker. Were these the same man?
Professor Carol Van Driel-Murray from the University of Amsterdam, a renowned expert in ancient leather and footwear, saw our shoe photographs. She said that, most unusually, the shoes came from a rural site and showed similarities to shoes found in a Roman well in Welzheim, Germany. She commented that shoes bring you very close to the actual people.
Another great leather find was an almost-complete cow hide, tanned and ready for use. Some thoughts of its purpose suggest that it may have been a leather cover, as slits were cut all round it. Were these used for tying the hide down over a cart, for instance, or for stretching it on a frame after tanning for shoe-making? We shall never know.
The conservation of these items was carried out by York Archaeological Trust (YAT). Many thanks for their work and expertise.
Some of the shoes are displayed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent. The leather finds were also featured in “Current Archaeology”, issue 253, April 2011.
More information about the site and the finds, together with photographs of the shoes can be found on our website, along with information and images of our other sites and fieldwork. www.stokearchaeologysociety.org.uk