10 June 2010

A really old shoe

You would have to have been living in....well....a cave (or perhaps sitting in an office somewhere doing productive and paid work) not to have heard yesterday's news about the discovery of what is being claimed to be the world's oldest known leather shoe, found in the Areni-1 Cave in Armenia. The shoe is said to be 5,500 years old, based on carbon dating of bits of the leather of which it was made and the grass with which it was stuffed.

I first read of the discovery last night in a NYT article by Pam Belluck, which is so caught up in its own clever references to "prehistoric Prada," Jimmy Choo, and Manolo Blahniks, that it neglects to give an adequate description of the discovery. As often seems to be the case, the most accurate and sober report I've seen so far is in Science News, in this case by Bruce Bower, who avoids most of the shoe jokes and provides helpful supplementary references. See also the shorter summary at 80beats (which cannot, however, resist a Blahnik reference, but makes up for it by having the best pictorial analogy, saying that the shoe "looks a bit like a baked potato"). Bower, unfortunately, beat me to the use of "a really old shoe."

Why do we care? Perhaps for no good reason except the entertainment value, suggests Charles Petit at Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

I think he's probably right about the general laziness and shallowness of journalistic motives. But from my perspective as a historian (or former historian) who loves the eloquence of old objects, this shoe is a beautiful and telling one because of its excellent state of preservation.

At any rate, in this case you can decide for yourselves. The paper describing the discovery, Ron Pinhasi et al. (2010), "First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands," is freely available at PLoS ONE. Oddly, none of the press reports that I have read on this discovery seems to contain a link to the paper itself. Hey guys, that's what HTML is for.

The Chalcolithic, for those of you who don't know, is the Copper Age, the dates of which vary from place to place.
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