If The Shoe Fits…

Excavating at the ancient Roman fort of Vindolanda in northern England has uncovered a wealth of well-preserved organic deposits, including leather sandals. 

Prof. Andrew Nelson of Western University’s Anthropology Department is the primary user of Western’s micro-CT Imaging System that’s housed in the Collections and Research wing of the MOA. Recently, Prof. Nelson has been working on a new research collaboration with Dr. Elizabeth Greene  from the Department of Classics. Dr. Greene has been excavating at the ancient Roman fort of Vindolanda in northern England for many years.  Excavations at the site have uncovered a wealth of well-preserved organic deposits, including leather sandals.  Discussions between Greene and Nelson led them to wonder what might be learned about these ancient shoes, and their wearers, through non-destructive analyses like micro-CT imaging?  The MOA offered footwear from the Jury ethnographic collections as a test to see what kinds of details the scanner could pick up – and the preliminary results are promising!

We don’t know very much about the footwear from the MOA collection, other than the sole is recorded to have been made of walrus hide and may have been an outer layer of Inuit-style footwear called Mukluks or Kamiks, as seen in this exhibit from the Bata Shoe Museum, hosted by the Virtual Museum of Canada.

Ethnographic footwear from the MOA collections mounted inside the micro-CT scanner. Image courtesy of Prof. Andrew Nelson, Western University, 2020.

The micro-CT images show some interesting characteristics of the materials, and what may be signs of wear.  Not bad for a quick pilot project, although it is hoped that further tests may demonstrate that the technique can also illuminate how the shoes were constructed. We look forward to seeing what scans of a Vindolanda shoe might tell us about how Roman footwear was crafted and worn! 

Micro-CT image showing possible impressions of the wearer’s foot on the walrus hide sole, as well as an unknown material adhered to the leather where the wearer’s heel would have been. Image courtesy of Prof. Andrew Nelson, Western University, 2020.