In the early fourth century C.E., a traveler making their way through the Horse Ice Patch in what is now Oppland, Norway, discarded a worn-out leather sandal. Some 1,700 years later, reports Ida Irene Bergstrøm for Science Norway, melting ice uncovered the shoe, enabling archaeologists to reconstruct the footwear and gain new insights on how Iron Age humans navigated the Norwegian landscape.
A local hiker spotted the sandal peeking out of the snow in August 2019. He snapped a few photographs of the find and shared its coordinates with Secrets of the Ice, a glacial archaeology program that has previously unearthed 1,300-year-old wooden skis, a 1,700-year-old tunic and thousands of other artifacts preserved in Norway’s glaciers and ice patches.
The hiker’s message arrived just in time for the team to safely recover the sandal. Racing to beat a snowstorm scheduled to blanket the area, the researchers spent a full day excavating the shoe and other nearby objects, including frozen horse poop, arrow shafts and textiles. The very next day, a fresh coat of snow covered the site.
Afterwards I made an attempt at a reconstruction. I finally got this tested out today on some scrap leather (the original from rawhide). It's in the same size as the original. My foot is a european size 43, thus with wool wrappings/socks it would probably fit a size 42.— Vegard Vike (@VegardVike) July 4, 2021
According to Secrets of the Ice’s Facebook page, radiocarbon dating placed the shoe’s creation around 300 C.E. Per a Twitter thread by Vegard Vike, an archaeological conservator at the Kulturhistorisk Museum in Oslo, the size nine rawhide sandal is a variant of the Roman carbatina style, which was popular across Europe in the same general time period.
“It’s pretty astonishing,” Finstad tells Science Norway. “[W]e’re up here at almost [6,500 feet], and we find a shoe with fashion elements similar to those found on the continent at the time. … It’s easy to joke about a Roman tourist who didn’t quite understand much about the country he was visiting.”
To combat the cold, the sandal’s owner likely wore it with wool wrappings or socks made out of fabric or animal skin. As Lars Pilø, an archaeologist with Secrets of the Ice, writes on Twitter, the traveler probably didn’t lose the shoe. Instead, they may have “thrown [it] away as rubbish” after it became worn out.
The Roman-inspired sandal is one of several centuries-old shoes found by Secrets of the Ice on or near the Lendbreen pass in Norway’s Jotunheim Mountains. In recent years, glacial melting triggered by global warming has revealed artifacts long locked in ice around the world, from wooden tools to mummies to clothing to arrows. At Lendbreen, objects uncovered by melting ice testify to the pass’ significance as a travel route between the Roman Iron Age (around 300 C.E.) and the Middle Ages.
“The pass was at its busiest during the Viking Age around 1000 [C.E.], a time of high mobility and growing trade across Scandinavia and Europe,” James Barrett, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge who has studied the Lendbreen pass, told Smithsonian magazine’s Megan Gannon in 2020. “This remarkable peak in use shows just how connected even a very remote location was to wider economic and demographic happenings.”
Like its better-known neighbor, the Horse Ice Patch was a key passage for ancient travelers. Its trails linked inland Norway to the coast.
“We imagine that people who traveled here would have had some sort of errand, a reason to move between these landscapes,” Finstad tells Science Norway. “They would have brought maybe leather, antlers, animal skins to the coast, and brought back salt and other goods.”
The number of finds made at the Lendbreen pass has dropped substantially in the past few years, leading researchers to suspect “that the ice from the time of the pass has now melted out,” as Pilø told Smithsonian in 2020. At the Horse Ice Patch, however, the melting has just begun.
“There will probably be more finds melting out here in the years to come,” notes Secrets of the Ice on Twitter.