Ötzi's Shoes

Calceology (from Latin calcei "shoes" and -λογία, -logiā, "-logy") is the study of footwear, especially archaeological and historical footwear. Probably the best example of a complete set of prehistoric clothes is that belonging to the 5,300 year old Ötzi the Iceman found in the Alps in 1991. Ötzi’s are the second oldest known shoes - the oldest being a 5,500-year-old moccasin-like shoe (called the Areni-1 shoe) that was found in an Armenian cave in 2008.

Czech researcher Dr. Petr Hlavacek from Tomas Bata University, made a number of replicas to determine how well the shoes functioned. After a hour hike in his replica shoes, Hlavacek said that the grass worked very well as an insulator and wicked moisture away from his feet. Anne Reichert said that a leather strip running across the sole provided a surprisingly good grip on icy ground, but the soles were not waterproof.

Although there is much debate about whether the toe-end hide was over or under the grass mesh, my interpretation of Ötzi’s shoes is based on the 2001 analysis of Professor Willy Groenman-van Waateringe and uses similar materials and style of construction. From a practical point of view, it seems easier to put a bare foot into this layering of hide under mesh, rather than the other way round (as toes tend to get caught up in the grass meshing).

Materials & Tools:

  • Thick leather - enough for two soles (brown bear hide was originally used)
  • Oval of leather for upper guard (deer hide was originally used)
  • Leather binding / cord (calf leather was originally used)
  • Dried grass / Natural Raffia (braided linden bark was originally used)
  • Dry hay / straw
  • Craft knife / scissors
  • Bradawl / Awl / pointed tool
  • Allow about 4-5 hours to complete each shoe

Step 1: Sole

First cut the shape of a foot out of the leather that is around 1.5cm larger that the actual foot size. To increase the durability of the leather, you could boil it in water for about 30 seconds - note: this may cause the leather to both shrink and curl up the edges of the sole.

Make around 32 small holes around the sole with the bradawl; evenly spaced about 0.5cm from the outer edge. The holes should be just large enough to take a thin leather binding.

Starting at the instep and working towards the heal, thread the leather binding through the holes until half way around.

Step 2: Upper Guard

The next stage is to make and attach the upper leather guard. This could be a different and more flexible leather than used for the sole (the original was deer hide with the hairside facing up).

Cut out an oval shape in the leather, approximately 30cm x 20cm and then cut the oval in half along shorter length. The template shown here is about the right size for a medium adult's foot, but should be made smaller for children.

Make around 12-16 small holes around the upper guard with the bradawl; evenly spaced about 0.5cm from the outer edge. The holes should be just large enough to take a thin leather binding.

Place the upper guard next to the sole with the face side downwards (as above) and thread the binding through the first hole in the upper guard and out through the next hole. Then thread the binding in and out the next two holes in the sole, before threading through the next two in the upper guard. Repeat this process all the way around, so that the upper guard forms a dome shape with the face side upwards.

During this activity the binding should be reasonably taught and should eventually be knotted to the other end, just by the instep. Cut of any excess binding to leave a tidy knot.

Step 3: Grass/Raffia Mesh (verticals)

Plait/braid around 16 strips of dried grass or raffia of various lengths (from around 20 - 50cm) knot at both ends. These will be the vertial lengths.

Insert the longer plaited lengths through the loops created by the binding at the toe end and the shorter plaited lengths through the loops created by the binding at the heal end.

The picture (left) shows the sole (that will be in contact with the ground) with the plaited lengths through the loops of the binding.

Once all binding loops have one vertical length of plaited raffia inserted through it, the next task is to created a mesh. This is done with horizontal strips of plaited raffia tied in place.

Step 4: Grass/Raffia Mesh (horizontals)

Plait/braid more strips of dried grass or raffia of various lengths (from around 80-50cm) knot at both ends. These will be the horizontal lengths.

Take one vertical length already inserted through the loop binding and twist it together for about 2-3cm. With one of the newly plaited horizontal lengths, knot it just above the twist. Move the the next vertical length in the binding; twist it together for 2-3cm, then tie the plaited horizontal length just above the twist. Repeat this process around the sole.

Once the first horizontal length is tied fully around the shoe, then start again by twisting a 2-3cm length from a vertical length and knot a new plaited horizontal length. Repeat this process around the sole, remembering to start creating the

Step 5: Completing the Grass/Raffia Mesh

5-6 horizontal lengths will be required to completed the mesh, which should form the shape of a foot - you may have to experiment to get the right size for the wearer.

On the last/top horizontal length, you may wish to add an extra layer to give additional strength. Trim off any excess plaited grass.

To allow the shoe to be put on/removed, the opening should be large enough to allow for a foot to be carefully slid in, however this will typically mean it will be too big for the wearers shin.

It is thought that Ötzi used laces at the top of his shoes to allow a better fit. Simply weave a plaited a length through the openings and tie as required.

Step 5: Hay "sock" lining

The final stage is simply to line the shoe with hay or straw.

Use long lengths of dry hay to fold into the heal and along the sides (hay should not be placed in between the upper guard and the Grass/Raffia Mesh.

Place the shoe onto your foot and add more hay to cover any gaps and to help ensure a good fit.

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