A Shoe, Skulls, Wine, and More

BY NANORE BARSOUMIAN

A 2008 archaeological find—a leather shoe—has proved to be about 5,500 years old. The shoe, which was discovered at Areni-1 cave in the Vayots Dzor province of Armenia, is 24.5 cm. long, (U.S. woman’s size 7; European size 37), and was shaped to its wearer’s right foot.

The conditions in the cave supported the excellent preservation of the shoe, which was made from a single piece of cow hide leather and laced in the front and back through 15 pairs of eyelets in the front, and 4 in the back. The shoe had been worn and repaired, but it wasn’t worn out. Researchers believe that the shoe was stuffed with grass either to preserve its shape, or for insulation and comfort.

“The significance [of this shoe] is that it tells us about human’s ability to manufacture such items, the fact that they already wore shoes 5,500 years ago (and probably earlier), and that a unique and advanced human society which we do not know much about lived in nowadays Armenia at the border with Iran and Turkey,” archaeologist Ron Pinhasi told the Armenian Weekly. Pinhasi, of the University College Cork in Cork, Ireland, co-led the research team.

Also part of the team were Dr. Boris Gasparian and graduate student Diana Zardaryan, from the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology in Yerevan, Armenia; Gregory Areshian from UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology; and Alexia Smith from the department of anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Their research article was submitted to PLoS One, a journal of the Public Library of Science, and published on June 9, 2010.

What led researchers to the Areni-1 cave? “Boris Gasparian, the Armenian co-director, visited the cave in 1993 and thought that it may have archaeological potential. We then test excavated it with Dr. Keith Wilkinson (UK), in 2007, and found lots of exciting artifacts, pots, etc.,” explained Pinhasi, who added that he had expected to find “Palaeolithic layers (early modern humans and Neanderthals)” before the excavations had begun.

The shoe, two samples of which were submitted for testing at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU), and one at the University of California-Irvine Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility (UCIAMS), has a date range of 3,627-3,377 BC (95.4 percent confidence interval), according to the PLoS article.

It was reportedly found by Diana Zardaryan, a doctoral student, in a plastered pit located in one of the cave trenches (Trench 3). Along with the shoe, two horns of an adult female wild goat, a fish vertebra, and pieces of 15 different vessels lay in the pit.

Prior to the discovery of the Armenian shoe, the earliest known shoe in Eurasia belonged to Ötzi, the Iceman (3,365-3,118 BC). Only parts of Ötzi’s footwear were recovered. They were made of deer and bear leather, and had an inner grass sock.

According to the PLoS paper, excavations in the upper ground layers in Trench 3 also revealed hints of domestic occupation of the space in the 12th-14th centuries AD. That same trench and Trench 1 have also revealed signs of “at least two phases of Chalcolithic [Copper Age] occupation in the cave.” The Chalcolithic occupants used the cave for various purposes, including habitation, as well as economic and ritual activities. Signs of domestic use—hearths, tools, and animal bones—were found in Trench 3. Trench 1 was used for storage and rituals. Researchers found three buried clay pots there, each containing a “subadult” skull.

One of the three human skulls contained brain remains, which have been dated to the first quarter of the 4th millennium BC. The cave’s damp atmosphere helped preserve its red and white blood cells. According to Gasparian, “The preliminary results of the laboratory analysis prove this is the oldest of the human brains so far discovered in the world. Of course, the mummies of Pharaonic Egypt did contain brains, but this one is older than the Egyptian ones by about 1,000 to 1,200 years.” The cave may also be the site of the world’s oldest winemaking operation, reported eurasianet.org back in September 2009.

How large is the cave? The Areni-1 cave “has two parts: the western (approximately 23 x 5 m.) and the eastern (approximately 15 x 12 m.). Three cave galleries go up to 40 m. deep into the rock with branching caverns and niches. The maximal width of the central gallery in the area of its widening inside the rock is 15 m. The height of the eastern gallery exceeds 10 m. near its entrance,” Pinhasi explained.

The work was supported by the Armenian Branch of the Gfoeller Fund of America Corporation, the National Geographic Society, the British Academy, the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, the Steinmetz Foundation, the Chitjian Trust, and the Boochever Foundation.

The shoe was reportedly found by Diana Zardaryan, a doctoral student, in a plastered pit located in one of the cave trenches (Trench 3). Along with the shoe, two horns of an adult female wild goat, a fish vertebra, and pieces of 15 different vessels lay in the pit

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