Vindolanda is well known for its Roman organic material, from writing tablets to leather tents. If it was lost here in the Roman period then there is a good chance we will find it.

One of the most prevalent types of objects to come from the site are leather boots and shoes. We have some 5,000 of them in many different shapes and sizes. They tell us a lot about the people who lived here nearly 2,000 years ago.

As curator and conservator here at Vindolanda, it is my job to take the muddy lumps of leather that come from the wet or anaerobic levels of the site and turn them into museum display objects or make them part of a reserve collection to be researched by our specialists. It can be hard work. As an example we had over 400 shoes that came out of the 2016 Severan ditch and each one of these takes time for cleaning and chemical conservation. And despite my sometimes lack of enthusiasm when the archaeologist let me know that they have found more shoes, I still find every single one fascinating and each one has a story to tell. Here are my top 5 favourite shoes from the collection.

5. Lady’s shoe sole

From its daintier size it is easily surmised that it belonged to one of our female residents here at Vindolanda. What strikes my fancy here is the lovely delicate pattern on the studs. The iron studs on any Roman shoe are there as a way of holding the numerous layers of leather which make up the sole together and these definitely do this. Also, it is imperative to have them in the proper place on the sole to help support the foot when walking which of course this pattern would also have this function. But what I love about this shoe is that the studs are small and delicate, and the pattern is beautiful. Imagine if you will, a dirt track, maybe muddy, then she would have left her shoe print as she walked around. We have other shoes with a similar pattern but this one is best preserved. 

4. Man’s marching boot

Vindolanda was home to somewhere between 500 to 1,000 Roman soldiers at any given time of occupation. That is a lot of Roman marching boots. These utilitarian boots would have been very useful here. Vindolanda is known to be a rather wet site as is most of northern Britain and keeping your feet dry and warm would have been a priority. These boots would have been ideal for this purpose. Every time I conserve a new one, I think of modern army boots and how important good footwear is to those going on the march.

3. Baby boot

Who could not love this little gem? I got into archaeology to find out about real people not those who had history written about them but people like me, maybe even my ancestors. I think children’s objects always help us to understand the progress of life in the past and this little object does just that. It is a mini representation of a larger adult shoe with an intricate fishnet upper. This shoe is so small that it would be doubtful that the owner would have been doing much walking in it. It was found in the praetorium of Flavius Cerialis and Sulpicia Lepidina and it is possible that it belonged to one of their children.

2. Lady’s slipper

This lady’s slipper was also found in the Cerialis’ house and is sometime affectionally called Lepidina’s slipper. It is the equivalent of a flip flop in design but a very expensive one at that. It was made in Gaul (modern France) by Lucius Aebutius Thales, we know this because he stamped the shoe with a maker’s mark. The shoe is further stamped with vine leaves and two cornucopiea interlocked across an ear of corn. Whether it was Lepindia’s or not it was definitely owned by a women who had money to spend on nice shoes. A simple breakage of the toe thong and she has thrown it away. Many other shoes from the site show evidence of repair but this one was discarded.

1. Pair of children’s shoes

These two little treasures were part of the hoard of over 400 shoes excavated in 2016. One would probably think that we have lots of pairs of shoes however, we only have a few. But this pair was easier to identify as they were small and have a less usual construction style as they do not have a seam that stitches them up over the toe and they were also found close together. They are the size of a modern children’s size 11 in the UK, so around the age of 5-6 years old.  These little shoes went on display here at Vindolanda in 2017 in our recent finds case. When they were removed to make way for new finds from 2018, this little pair started on a new adventure traveling around the empire as part of our museum loans programme. The have been on display in Arles, France and Florence, Italy and will shortly be returning home to Vindolanda. Why are they my favourite? Its hard to say. Sometimes with objects you just love them. Looking at them, cleaning them, thinking of who might have owned them. What did they do while wearing them? For me, the adventures of the small person who wore them are endless. I think that is why they are my favourite. Thinking of a young life, possibly born here at Vindolanda, growing Growing up here and then what did they do? It is an object that shows potential and opportunity and I find that very exciting.