Is this the world's oldest shoe? 5,000-year-old leather-laced size 4 found in cave in Armenia
by David Derbyshire
For lovers of fashion, it's the ultimate vintage shoe.
Created more than 5,500 years ago at the dawn of civilisation this perfectly preserved brown leather lace-up is the oldest shoe in the world.
It was created from a piece of cow hide 1,000 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza and stitched together with leather thread.
The size 4 shoe - discovered buried in a cave in Armenia - is so well preserved that its lace is still intact.
Archaeologists say it probably belonged to a woman who deliberately buried it in the cave during a mysterious ritual. The cave also contained three pots, each containing a child's skull, along with containers of barley, wheat and apricot.
For Dr Ron Pinhasi, University College Cork, the shoe is a discovery of a lifetime.
'We thought initially that the shoe and other objects were about 600-700 years old because they were in such good condition,' said Dr Pinhasi.
'When we discovered that the shoe dated back to 3,500 BC and that it was the oldest leather shoe, we were very excited.'
The shoe was worn by an early farmer living in the mountains of Vayotz Dzor province of Armenia close to the border of modern-day Turkey and Iran.
The region was on the edge of the Fertile Crescent - the great sweep of land that gave birth to the first towns, cities and farms.
It was made from a single piece of leather, tanned using vegetable oil, and shaped to fit the wearer's foot. It contained grass, although archaeologists are unsure whether this was to keep out the cold, or maintain the shape of the shoe .
It was laced using a strip of leather threatened through slits. At some point in its life, one of the slits tore - forcing the wearer to make repairs by recutting another gash for the lace.
'It is not known whether the shoe belonged to a man or a woman,' said Dr Pinhasi, who reports the findings in the journal PLoS One.
However, the small size makes it most likely that it belonged to a woman, he added.
The cool and dry conditions in the cave helped preserve the shoe which appears to have been buried in the ground on its own. The floor was covered with a thick layer of sheep dung which helped conserve the shoe and other finds.
Three samples of the shoe were carefully radiocarbon-dated at laboratories at Oxford University and the University of California, Irvine.
The shoe was discovered by Armenian PhD student, Diana Zardaryan, of the Institute of Archaeology, Armenia, in a pit that also included a broken pot and sheep's horns.
Researcher Dr Gregory Areshian, of the University of California, Los Angeles, said: 'We couldn't believe the discovery. The crusts had sealed the artefacts and archaeological deposits and artefacts remained fresh dried, just like they were put in a can.'
The previous oldest known footwear were sandals made from plants found in a cave in Missouri. They were made and worn a few hundred years after the Armenian shoe.
The design is similar to the 'pampooties' worn on the Aran Islands in the West of Ireland up to the 1950s.
'We do not know yet what the shoe or other objects were doing in the cave or what the purpose of the cave was,' said Dr Pinhasi.
'We know that there are children's graves at the back of the cave but so little is known about this period that we cannot say with any certainty why all these different objects were found together.'
Armenia's climate 5,500 years ago was similar to today's - hot in the summer, snowy in winter. The owner of the shoe would have worn wool and leather clothes, and relied on the shoes for protection as she walked around the rocky terrain.
The shoe may have been made locally, or traded with the more sophisticated towns and villages in the heart of Mesopotamia, Dr Pinhasi added.