In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Elizabeth Greene of Western University explains what shoes found at an archaeological dig in England have to say about the ancient Romans who wore them.
Elizabeth Greene is an assistant professor in Roman Archaeology at Western University in London, Canada. With research focusing on Roman archaeology and social history, she has been engaged in field work at the Roman Fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England for the last nine years. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Dr. Elizabeth Greene – Roman Shoes
The Roman Imperial army, a force that controlled all of Western Europe and beyond nearly two thousand years ago, was long thought to have been a bastion of masculinity with few women present except for the odd prostitute. In reality, there were women and children living in the communities surrounding the army, playing important supportive roles for the unit.
One archaeological site has been crucial in our investigation of these individuals: that is the Roman fort at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall in England. Vindolanda is an extraordinary site because of its oxygen-free layers of soil, which preserve organic materials such as leather and wood. As a result, over 4000 leather shoes have been found in various contexts around the site dating from the 1st to 4th centuries A.D.
Shoes offer amazing details about the population here, because in some sense a shoe stands proxy for the person who once wore it. The very existence of 2000-year-old leather shoes is impressive enough; however, one of the most fruitful aspects of this research is the breadth of information that a single shoe can offer.
Shoes preserve details about size and height of a population, and about disease and deformity in the past. They tell us about age and sex of those present in a community; it wasn’t until women’s and children’s shoes were found inside the fort at Vindolanda that anyone investigated the families of soldiers.
Shoes tell us about class and wealth and people’s role in society; the children’s shoes found in the home of the commanding officer are of the same high-end style as the officer himself. This small detail suggests that military children were held to the same expectations of status in the Roman world.
Shoes provide a unique window into the lives of individuals living with the Roman army on a far-flung frontier nearly two thousand years ago.