I have loved shoes for as long as I can remember. From pink plastic Barbie shoes, to light-up runners, to my first pair of Converse All Stars (inherited from my older sister) to my “job-interview” flats, my personal development can be traced through my footwear. There are the cleats that helped me run away from the soccer ball for fear I might have to do something with it, the “impractical” sky-high heels my mother told me not to buy, pointe shoes that reminded me I was not meant to be a ballerina, and the dirt-stained sneakers that walked me around the Australian Outback. Shoes have marked many of my milestones. There were white dress shoes for First Communion and black Mary Janes for funerals, snowboard boots that witnessed the best of my tricks and worst of my wipeouts and prom shoes that danced with my first boyfriend. I remember practicing tying bows so I could wear lace-up shoes like my older siblings and, many years later, clearing toys off my bedroom shelves to make room for my growing shoe collection.
These are just a few moments of my own personal history and the footwear that carried me toward them. However, shoes also play an important role in the broader scope of human history. They reflect technological advancement, national identity, culture and way of life, as well as larger sociopolitical values and trends.
At Vindolanda, shoes represent a period of history and the people who lived it. Over 4000 footwear items have been found buried and preserved in the anaerobic. Leather shoes, sandals, clogs, and boots are evidence of different lifestyles, socio-economic statuses and careers. They are both archaeological artifacts and they are personal items. They are someone’s trash and they are beautiful creations. These shoes were made, given, worn, repaired and valued by the people who lived at Vindolanda almost 2000 years ago and they are once again valued by those who study them today. It is at Vindolanda where Roman history and my personal history collide. You do not have to own a shoe for it to be life-changing.
Since starting excavation in the Vicus two weeks ago, I have had the great fortune of finding three individual shoes. The first was smaller in size and was missing its upper (the part of the shoe that is sewn onto the sole). The toe was very rounded. The second shoe was also missing its upper but this sole had more of a pointed toe, clearly a different style than the first. The third shoe was much larger and more substantial than the others. It consisted of several pieces of leather pressed together and much of the heel remains intact.
One of the reasons finding a shoe on excavation is so exciting is because they are so immediately recognizable. Archaeological excavation is an extremely complex undertaking that requires in-depth understanding of many areas of study including geography, history, and geology (to name a few). As a result, oftentimes when items are pulled from the floor of the trench, to the untrained eye, there is a certain level of uncertainty and puzzlement. We often have to ask a more experienced digger to decipher what it is that we have found. However, when you find a shoe, you know exactly what it is and can relate to it so personally. This big world of archaeology and history and politics shrinks down to the human level, to the individual person whose shoe you have just found. It can be difficult at times to envision the partial walls we see today as important fort buildings or the sporadic road stones as busy routes through a bustling community, but when you hold an ancient shoe in your hand, a shoe that looks just like the ones you have spent your entire life wearing, suddenly you can picture it. You can picture them. It is a firm reminder that the people who once lived at Vindolanda are not so different from you and I. Although these shoes are not mine to keep, I will mentally catalogue them with the rest of the shoes that have marked moments of my personal growth. Even more than simply bearing witness to critical moments in my life, these shoes have created them.