Published 2nd February 2019

Once an artefact is found during the excavations, it undergoes conservation in our onsite laboratory. It is stabilized, conserved and prepared for display or storage. Research on the object is weaved throughout this process.  

One of our top finds of the 2018 season was a group of four hipposandals, found in two sets of two and discarded in the fill of a ditch dating to AD 140-180. Hipposandals are, along Hadrian’s Wall, a rare find. The Vindolanda collection only holds one other hipposandal which is in a much poorer condition. However, they are not uncommon elsewhere in Britain especially in urban contexts. One was found at Silchester, two at Blackburn Mill as part of a hoard found in two cauldrons one on top of the other, one at Newstead, several at Gorhambury (St. Albans), just to name a few. Roman hipposandals are also found in France and upper Austria, where they are often studded (see image below).

Hipposandals from Aurachkirchen, upper Austria. Taken from Image Littauer, M. A. (1977). Hipposandals again. Plus ça change. Antiquity, 51(203), 235-236.

Various theories have been put forward regarding what hipposandals were used for. Here are the most popular ones:

1. Temporary horseshoes 

The most common theory is that these iron objects were a type of horseshoe. They were not nailed to the horses’ hooves like modern horseshoes but rather worn tied with cords made of organic materials. Hipposandals could be fitted by anyone who owned a horse, with little need for specialist farrier knowledge. They could be carried easily, and just as easily be replaced. They would have been very useful when on remote postings or expeditions. However, all horses’ gaits (but mostly trot, canter and gallop) involve the 4 legs collecting close together under the body of the animal, either 2 by 2 on the ground or all 4 in the air. Any horse may have damaged its own legs if maneuvered at pace while wearing such heavy sandals. In fact, some researchers support the theory that hipposandals are not horseshoes at all: according to them they could only have been used on slower pack animals such as oxen, mules and donkeys.

2. Hobbles (leg restraints)

The hipposandals could have been fitted on two or four hooves. The front hooves would have been fitted with hipposandals equipped with front-facing loops, that would have then been tied together. This would have only allowed the horse to move a few inches at a time and would have stopped pasturing horses from straying.

3) Medicinal, offensive or traction horseshoes

Hipposandals could have been used as a medicinal shoe, which could carry a salve packed in or around the iron and therefore kept firmly on the hoof and frog (the soft part of a horse hoof located on the underneath of the foot). They could have also been used for offensive purposes, for example, riding into battle wearing these would have avoided painful caltrops, which could have made a horse lame, or for better traction on ice and mud. The Vindolanda sandals are scored, not studded, but may have worked to guarantee a firm grip in wintery conditions, when pace was forcibly slow.

What is your opinion?

Our hipposandals are now on display at the Roman Army Museum. Come and have a look at them and make up your mind about their mysterious function!

Straight out of the ground the four hipposandals moments arfter they had been excavated.

Held by Dr Alexander Meyer (left) and Dr Andrew Birley (right).