Spotlight On … the Dublin Dig.

Spotlight On … the Dublin Dig.

Written by Victoria Green.

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In 1968, the National Museum of Ireland continued excavations in Dublin. Ran by Breandán Ó Ríordáin, these digs were carried out in the Old High Street area and down at Wood Quay. The excavations were filmed by RTÉ for a special episode of the television show ‘Anthology’, which can still be watched online. These excavations yielded mainly medieval and viking deposits, ranging from defensive embankments to habitations and, most relevantly, leather.

When I was presented with the big box full of leather soles and offcuts, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. The only information I was given was a label reading ‘Dublin Dig 1968’ and a folder full of correspondence between the founder of our museum, John Waterer, and Breandán Ó Ríordáin. So, in true archaeology-detective style, I set to work. I wanted to know what the leather represented, what the shoes would have looked like, and what social comment they offered on the time.

From reading the letters sent between Waterer and Ó Ríordáin, I learned that our artefacts are from the High Street. They were samples gifted to Waterer for his time and expertise identifying a number of archaeological leather finds, including sheaths, footwear and leather scraps or offcuts. It was clear that Ó Ríordáin considered Waterer to be the authority on all things leather and was keen to hear his thoughts, frequently inviting him over to Ireland to help with the post-excavation analysis. This was an interesting way to learn about a dig, given the elusiveness a formal report, and something that was very new to me. In this way, I was fortunate enough to get to see the excavation through the eyes of the men so closely involved with it. Luckily, I also had the help of John Nicholl, a freelance archaeological leather finds specialist, to help fill in the gaps.

Most of the leather finds were cuttings, likely unwanted scrap from a cobbler’s workshop. Here, old and worn shoes were repaired or reconstructed by recycling old leather, before being resold to the public. Whilst excavating, archaeologists uncovered a layer of industrial leather waste over four feet thick. The sheer volume of leather indicates that there must have been a community of cobblers working in the High Street area for a long period of time.

Some of the offcuts were tightly crimped and oddly sticky, perhaps as the result of a conservation process. The mostly likely explanation for the crimping would be to do with whip-stitching being used in conjunction with a long length of leather thong. Given the evidence to support a community of cobblers and the length of the offcuts, this is the most likely explanation. There is, however, also the suggestion that the crimping may have been a result of the leather being stretched out and attached to a frame. Goatskin was often stretched like this to produce parchment. The proximity of the site to Christchurch Cathedral adds weight to this, as parchment would have definitely been used here. Could the offcuts have been the result of trimming the edges to produce a straight finish?

Next came the 14th Century shoe, which is near enough intact save for the missing back part. It is typical of a 14th Century design and, if you look closely, there is even some stitching still in situ along the sole seam. The shoe does seem to have undergone some modifications; the flesh/edge butt seams at the sides are unusually high and the ‘V’ cut at the instep is large, with what appears to be a single lace hole. John Nicholl made the suggestion that perhaps the shoe was an attempt at an orthopaedic shoe for a deformed foot. The more I examined the shoe, the more I began to agree. There are leather bulges across the toe, matched by impressions on the inside. The wear pattern on the sole certainly suggests pressure on the ball of the foot. Our odd little box of samples had already proved to be a unique selection.

Last came the mystery Roman caliga. This sole had me scratching my head in puzzlement. I was confronted by what was undoubtedly a Roman shoe, in a context where no Roman shoes should have existed. The Romans did not colonise Ireland and there has never been anything like this found in an Irish context. The sole is not unlike those found at Vindolanda and is heavily hobnailed for marching; the caliga was a military shoe. Nails in footwear did not appear in Ireland until the 17th Century, other than single nails being used for attaching clumps in targeted area repairs. This led us towards the unavoidable conclusion that perhaps the sole was a stray, having made its way into the wrong box at some point in the past. Despite the tag tied to the sole which reads ‘Dublin Dig’, it is a good exercise in scepticism to always question the improbable. Nine times out of ten, that is exactly what it is. (I, however, am still open to suggestions!)

Having learned about the more unusual pieces in the box, I am keen to hear John’s thoughts on some of the individual soles, representing poulaines and other medieval footwear. If anyone has any ideas about the Roman caliga, please do get in touch. Stay tuned for another blog on the Dublin Dig artefacts in the next couple of weeks to celebrate that fact that this museum really has got sole!

John Nicholl is a freelance archaeological leather finds specialist, based in Dublin. His website www.broguesandshoes.com offers commentary on different types of archaeological leather.

This collection is just one example of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection! 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.

We are trying to raise £5,000 on JustGiving to open our museum to the public. To read more about our fundraising campaign, please visit our page here.