The discovery of the world’s oldest known leather shoe set the archaeological world and the public abuzz. But what really excites UConn archaeologist Alexia Smith is not the shoe itself but its contents.
Smith, an assistant professor in the anthropology department in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is part of a multi-national team that recently announced the discovery of a 5,500 year-old shoe at the excavation site of Areni-1 in Armenia.
The shoe, made of cowhide and perfectly preserved, is an archaeological marvel because of its age – it dates back to around 3500 B.C. – and its pristine condition. It is stuffed with grass, perhaps to maintain its shape or to prepare it for storage. And that’s what interests Smith. What a casual observer might see as simply a handful of grass is for her an intriguing puzzle waiting to be solved.
The shoe contains Poaceae, a family of grasses that includes the staple food grains and cereal crops grown throughout the world. Smith is a archaeoethnobotanist, whose primary research interest is the recovery and identification of ancient plant remains. She uses this evidence to determine the effects of climate change on food production in Bronze and Iron Age settlements in the Near East.
“Once the shoe is conserved,” she says, “the grass will be removed and I’ll conduct a full analysis. By identifying the grasses, I’ll hopefully be able to reconstruct the specific types of vegetation in existence at the time it was worn.”
Typically, plant remains are preserved through carbonization, and certain species do not survive the process. But because the floor of the cave at Areni-1 was covered by a thick layer of sheep dung, the artifacts left behind were effectively desiccated, leaving both the shoe and its contents in superb condition for analysis.
Animal bones found at the site point to a society in which cows, sheep, and goats were domesticated. The presence of additional artifacts suggests the existence of a range of household activities, such as cooking over stone hearths and the grinding of grains for human consumption.
What especially intrigues Smith is evidence that the inhabitants of the cave heavily exploited tree fruits. “This was a real surprise to us,” she says, “because so few are found at other sites.”
In addition to her work at the Areni-1 site, she is working at the Tell Leilan project in Syria. This is one of the largest archaeological sites in that country and was one of the most important cities in northern Mesopotamia during the second and third millennia B.C.
Work at that site also focuses on the relationship between humans and their natural and social environment. Located in the Fertile Crescent, Syria was one of the areas where hunter-gatherers settled and complex societies based on formal agricultural principles were developed. This included not only the propagation of grain crops, such as wheat, barley, and flax, but also trees such as fig and olive.
The realization that fruit trees were an important component of the agricultural landscape in Armenia, outside the Fertile Crescent and at a transitional time between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages (the Chalcolithic period), adds to the intrigue at the Areni-1 excavation, because so little is known about their process of domestication. Currently all evidence points to the Caucasus as the most likely region of origin.
“Very little is known about food production during the Chalcolithic period in this region,” says Smith, “so any new information is truly exciting.”