Written by Victoria Green.
Originally when I began working with the National Leather Collection, my role was to trawl through the Dickensian tome that is the museum’s acquisitions record, handwritten (mostly) by museum founder John Waterer. The information provided here about place of purchase, amount paid at auction and brief notes on the piece offer the first few crumbs of provenance about the artefacts in our collection. Using these prompts (dates, places, collector’s names, etc), I would research into the object, attempting to find out where it came from originally to shed some light on the context and significance. In short, my job was to get everybody very excited about the cool stuff hidden away in our cardboard boxes.
As mentioned in a previous blog the founder of the collection, John Waterer, was acquiring items in the boom of the age of antiquarian archaeology. He was most certainly a magpie collector, acquiring items that interested him because they were exceptionally rare or unusual. Waterer was also gifted objects from excavations around the world, mostly through his friendly network of leather craftsmen and collectors. This has provided us with some fairly high-profile curiosities.
One such item is an Egyptian shoe, about which we originally knew fairly little. According to John Waterer’s notes in the acquisitions record, the shoe was from the ‘Ptolemaic Period c.307-30 BC’ (for those less familiar with Egyptian chronology, the Ptolemaic period ended with Cleopatra) and part of the Sir Flinders Petrie Collection. Waterer, however, purchased it from Antiquities Croydon, which raises the question of how this shoe ended up on sale in the first place. I still wonder what information was given to Waterer to identify this shoe as Ptolemaic. He certainly had several Egyptologist friends who verified objects for him, but whether he asked them for advice is not stated. The date range he provided is very general, and spans the entirety of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
So armed with a few breadcrumbs of information, I decided to research further into these shoes. From what we could glean, the shoe is made of goatskin with traces of the original red colouring visible in places. Upon closer inspection, remnants of the original gold ornamentation remain. The shoe is quite badly fragmented and, at some point in the past, has been glued to a homemade cardboard last. The sole is missing, and the heel part is stuck to the upper. After studying some typologically similar examples held in other collections, it seemed apparent to me that the piece is a ‘turnshoe’. These shoes are stitched inside out, and then literally turned through. As the sole is missing, however, this cannot be stated with true confidence. Nonetheless, the upper is extended at the toe to form a point, another typical feature. The heel section has punched leather holes, potentially for holding leather strands or for joining. The aforementioned gold ornamentation forms a simple pattern. Presumably symmetrical, it appears like a geometric sunburst. This is more simplistic than other examples researched, but whether this is an indication that it is an earlier shoe, a cheaper imitation of shoes of that style for a lower class market, or a consequence of wear and deterioration that has eradicated much of the pattern, cannot be said.
The research into the structural and decorative features of the shoe itself unfortunately produced answers that were at odds with John Waterer’s ‘Ptolemaic’ classification, as our shoe imitated so strongly the later Coptic shoes held in other museums. This would mean that the shoe is, in fact, between 400 – 700 years younger than we originally thought, likely dating somewhere between 300 – 500 AD. The Copts were introduced into Egypt during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius from 42 AD. They are credited with the birth of Christianity in Egypt, and the spreading of their eponymous language.
After collaboration with both the British Museum and the Flinders Petrie Museum, the ‘Coptic’ classification was all but confirmed. I was advised that the shoe was most likely excavated at Hawara, Egypt. Hawara is known for its mixed archaeological contexts and problems with dating. Sir Flinders Petrie’s 1888-89 excavation report from a tomb in Hawara states that ‘a large quantity of sandals were also with this interment – some of papyrus, some of string, some of leather’, suggesting that perhaps this was the provenance of our artefact. In addition to this, the shoe is apparently distinct from earlier examples, being typologically similar to Coptic shoes. The gold foil enhancement in particular was a popular Coptic trend. Both of my contacts, however, conceded that little is known about Ptolemaic footwear so we will only ever have a best estimate.
Although finding out that our Egyptian shoe was far younger than expected and not, in fact, one of Cleopatra’s very own lounge slippers was a little disappointing to me. The whole journey of research and discovery, however, is incredibly rewarding. It is akin to losing a penny and picking another one up. Though perhaps not as ‘glamorous’ as a Ptolemaic shoe, our Coptic sandal is still an incredibly important artefact from a tempestuous time of social change. Archaeology is all about challenging labels, and digging out facts. Especially now, in our age of technology, it is easier than ever to unearth the truth.
These shoes are just one example of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection! To read more about our Egyptian artefacts, check out our blog on Theban underpants. To learn more about the collection, visit our homepage. All support is greatly appreciated, so please visit our support page to find out how you can get involved.