Ancient shoe-filled jar found in Luxor temple

There were no coins stuffed into these shoes. The survival of seven leather shoes for 2000 years was the great treasure in and of itself. They were discovered in 2004 in a jar placed between two mudbrick walls in the mortuary temple of King Amenhotep II at Luxor. Amenhotep II ruled from 1427 to 1401 B.C., but stratigraphic evidence and dating of the shoes indicate they were placed in the temple around 2000 years ago, during the Ptolemaic period.

There are three pairs of shoes, two of them in children’s sizes, and one pair of adult shoes. The seventh was an adult shoe found wrapped around the two child shoes then tied together with a string made of palm fiber. The children’s shoes are around seven inches long. The adult pair is more than nine inches long and the wear pattern — the left shoe was more patched and repaired than the right — suggests they were worn by someone with a limp. The odd shoe had a protruding semi-circular area, possibly impressed into the leather from prolonged contact with a bunion.

Egypt’s dry air preserved the leather so well that the shoes were in pristine condition when found, still supple and intact. Unfortunately, as soon as they were removed from their hiding place the material began to get brittle. The archaeologists who made the discovery enlisted the aid of expert Dr. AndrĂ© Veldmeijer, director and principal researcher of the Ancient Egyptian Footwear Project, an ongoing research project that aims to examine the significance of footwear in Egyptian culture and how foreign cultures may have influenced it.

Since the shoes were too fragile to be palpated, Veldmeijer examined them in pictures, something he has done before when studying the shoes found in Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter. (You can read the resulting book, Tutankhamun’s Footwear, online for free.) Unlike the footwear buried with Tutankhamun, most of which consists of sandals on a coiled sole, the Luxor shoes appear to have been designed and cobbled in foreign climes.

He found that the people who wore the seven shoes would have tied them using what researchers call “tailed toggles.” Leather strips at the top of the shoes would form knots that would be passed through openings to close the shoes. After they were closed a long strip of leather would have hung down, decoratively, at either side. […]

Most surprising was that the isolated shoe had what shoemakers call a “rand,” a device that until now was thought to have been first used in medieval Europe. A rand is a folded leather strip that would go between the sole of the shoe and the upper part, reinforcing the stitching as “the upper is very prone to tear apart at the stitch holes,” he explained. The device would’ve been useful in muddy weather when shoes are under pressure, as it makes the seam much more resistant to water.

In the dry (and generally not muddy) climate of ancient Egypt, he said that it’s a surprising innovation and seems to indicate the seven shoes were constructed somewhere abroad.

That could explain why they were placed in a jar and stashed between two walls in the temple. These were luxury items, leather imports with a snazzy look that would stand out in the Egyptian crowd. They were repaired carefully to keep them in working order during their lifetime and treasured as expensive status symbols. Just as with coin, precious metal or jewelry hoards, these shoes were hidden in the temple to keep them safe during dangerous times but the owner never had a chance to recover them as planned.

For a cool overview of Egyptian footwear, particularly the ones found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, watch this lecture by Dr. Veldmeijer at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can see how different the Luxor shoes are from the sandals and open footwear more characteristic of Egyptian style, although even there the contributions of foreign styles, particularly in the leatherwork, are notable.