Footwear: Archaeology and Meaning

My first boots in 1971- Age 3

I’ve been madly in love with shoes my whole life it seems. I love to buy them, wear them, show them off and admire them on others. So when it turned out there were a large number of burials with shoes in the Alameda-Stone cemetery in Tucson I jumped at the chance to excavate and analyze them. For those of you visiting my blog for the first time, the Alameda-Stone cemetery was my home away from home for about 4 years and is the subject of my dissertation. The cemetery dated from about 1860 to 1881 and was a “municipal” use cemetery with a military section. Most of the cemetery, however, was populated with civilian burials. Much of what appears below is an aggregate of my drafts of the archaeological project’s final report and various papers presented at professional conferences.

A quick bit of shoe history

There are several websites (1, 2, 3, and 4 for starters)  dedicated to the history of shoes in more detail than I will attempt to discuss here.

That said, the earliest shoes were located at Fort Rock Cave in Oregon and date to about 10,000 years ago.

Sagebrush bark sandals from Fort Rock Cave

These were not, however, the earliest archaeological evidence that humans were trying to protect their fragile feet. Fifteen-thousand-year-old cave drawings in Spain depict humans with animal skins and fur wrapped around their feet in an early shoe-type foot covering.  Biomechanical analysis of human remains from the Upper Paleolithic suggest footwear may actually be as old as 40,000 years (Trinkaus 2005). Foot coverings were probably one of the earliest forms of clothing.

Shoes have been a major element of high fashion since the European Renaissance, if not earlier. The oddly shaped Poullaine was particularly trendy in that it symbolized wealth and status; the longer and pointer, the higher the status!

15th century Poulaines

Eventually, however, width replaced length as a measure of status. By the mid-1500s shoes became squarer in shape and wider at the toe reaching their widest at about 9 inches during the reign of Henry VIII, and were called duckbills. During the Elizabethan period, laws were enacted limiting the width to 5 1/2 inches. Of course, these ridiculous shoe shapes were afforded only by the richest of the rich. European peasants wore shoes with wooden soles and leather uppers, resembling shoes we wear today. For some of the strange shapes and eccentric foot fashion-a must-see for any shoe lover- is the Bata shoe museum in Toronto Canada. The museum building is even shaped like a shoebox!

American shoes

America’s first cobbler was Thomas Beard who nailed together the first American shoes in 1629. Leather moccasin styles borrowed from American Indians were so popular they became one of America’s early exports to the Old World.  In the mid eighteenth century, the first shoe factory was established in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Early-nineteenth-century shoes were little more than cloth or leather booties stretched and sewn to hard leather soles. The left shoe was indistinguishable from the right until the wearer forced the shape through use. Before the nineteenth century, U.S. shoemakers did little more than their predecessors to conform to the demands of the complicated human foot. Around 1860, curved lasts, or soles, for left and right shoes were developed (Anderson 1968). Crude manufacturing methods, however, provoked complaints from Arizona Territory soldiers during the Civil War (1861–1865). Ill-fitting boots, sewn threads that broke under stress, and wooden pegs that contracted and became loose plagued countless foot soldiers (Brinkerhoff 1976:3).


Civil War era brogans

Before and during the Civil War, problematic footwear was charged to the soldier’s company clothing allowance. After the Civil War, however, soldiers were expected to buy their own shoes. Soldiers took matters into their own hands by rejecting boots manufactured and sold by the federal government, opting instead to
purchase privately (Brinkerhoff 1976:4). Cobblers purchased high-quality leather from Mexico rather than following the government’s lead by using leather remnants. One soldier described breaking in his unyielding Spanish leather boots: “These [shoes] were very uncomfortable, but I solved the fit by walking through the creek until the uppers were thoroughly soaked, walked the whole day in them and so got a foot form and comfort” (Brinkerhoff 1976:9).

Improvements in shoe manufacture progressed rapidly during the war. By 1862, power-driven stitching replaced hand sewing and nailing replaced wooden pegs. Despite the innovation and general availability of brass screws for fastening the sole to the upper as early as 1862, the brass standard screw machine was not perfected until 1880. In 1876, the Quartermaster Department’s investigation into complaints about brass screws found that screw-machine operators often ran the machine too fast; this procedure allowed the brass
screws, upon wear, to push through the leather, making direct contact with the wearer’s foot (McChristian 1995). In addition to the problem of screws causing puncture wounds, soldiers complained that the copper screws conducted heat through the sole of the shoe. As a remedy, the army returned to hand-sewn soles and offered sheepskin to guard against the brass screws (Brinkerhoff 1976:15). Despite these problems, brass screws remained popular into the twentieth century. It was not until 1888, after the cemetery closed, that
shoe sizes were standardized and soldiers and civilians alike could measure their feet and order sized shoes through a catalog (Anderson 1968:59).

Shoe symbolism

Clifford Geertz’s (1973) concept of “thick description”  in which symbols and signs are deeply contextual and are tied to structures of a particular culture may help to interpret shoes in archaeological contexts. As Geertz wrote, agreeing with Max Weber, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of his own significance he himself has spun”. When considering shoes, particularly in burial contexts, it is too narrow to evaluate them within the Saxe/Binford framework of energy expenditure and socioeconomic status. The anthropologist must consider cultural context and symbolic meaning. Shoes are symbolic.

Human frailty

At their most basic level, shoes represent human frailty. The Laetoli footprints illustrate this best, I think. Human feet are tender. These pairs of footprints across freshly fallen ash illustrate the temptations we all feel when we see a fresh patch of wet concrete or  the clean slate left by a receding wave on the shore: a soft place to walk, a trace of ourselves, and, last but not least, the need for human companionship.

Footprints from Laetoli site, Tanzania

Good Fortune

In the western world, shoes were often associated with good luck and safe travel. The tradition of throwing old shoes at ships insured a sailor’s safe return and continues in the form of tying shoes to the Newlywed getaway car. In the photo shown below, shoes were thrown by visitors traveling through Nevada. The “shoe tree” became a point of interest and an odd tourist destination. Other similar trees are found all over the U.S.

Nevada shoe tree


In most Muslim and Asian cultures, shoe are considered dirty and are removed before entering  holy places and are often taken off before entering homes. By striking the toppled statue of their former president with the soles of their shoes, Iraqi citizens show their contempt for their ousted leader.

Iraqis beating fallen statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes

Political protest

And by extension, when an Iraqi reporter threw his shoe at sitting President George Bush, a clear message of dissatisfaction and disrespect flew across the room as well.

Mark Woodward wrote in an excerpt from his article in Religion Dispatches:

“There is also a long history of diplomatic impasses and political conflict stemming from the refusal of western envoys to remove their shoes while visiting Muslim and other Asian capitals, and the refusal of Asian monarchs to make exceptions to accommodate Westerners’ discomfort at the thought of appearing shoeless in official capacities. To throw a shoe at a visiting head of state and erstwhile ally is very close to the ultimate expression of disgust and defiance.”

An Iraqi reporter throwing a shoe at President George Bush

Gender and sexuality


One superstition holds that if you place your shoes in the form of a T on the left side of your bed, you are guaranteed to glimpse a vision of your one true love in your dreams. And of course, all Americans know the importance of the glass slipper in the Cinderella story, shown in the photo below. Her small feet symbolized her femininity, as well, so in this story her small shoes symbolize her gender as well.

Walt Disney animated classic "Cinderella"


Bronzed baby shoes are a prime example of a utilitarian object being transformed into an object of commemoration (Basalla 1982). In this example, bronzed baby shoes commemorate those all-important “first steps”.

Bronzed baby shoes

Mortuary Contexts

Shoes in mortuary contexts may have multiple meanings. The obvious explanation for the overwhelming absence of shoes in the Alameda-Stone cemetery can be explained by economics. Circa 1862, shoe prices ranged from $3.00 to $4.00 (Store Ledger 1862–1868, Arizona Historical Society Tucson, Arizona). By comparison, at the same Tucson shop three shirts could be purchased for $1.50 and a suit of clothes could be purchased for
$6.50 (Store Ledger 1862–1868, Arizona Historical Society Tucson, Arizona). In 1871, the cost of a soldier’s pair of boots was $2.07 (Brinkerhoff 1976:4).

The exclusion of shoes with burials may be considered in socioeconomic terms, but shoes have eschatological meanings as well. Mainfort and Davidson (2006) suggested in their discussions of the Eddy and Becky Wright cemeteries in Arkansas and the interments at Freedman’s Cemetery in Dallas that shoes may have been included in those burials because shoes may provide a magical element to the wearer as he or she began a new journey. A similar custom has been observed in Oaxacan funeral rites. Men were shod in sandals made especially for the journey of the dead on the rocky road to Paradise (Toor 1985). Regardless of the reason for inclusion, economic or spiritual, shoes
are extremely personal.

The Alameda-Stone Cemetery

Evidence for shoes was relatively rare among the Tucson interments: approximately 5 percent of the cemetery population buried with artifacts was associated with some kind of footwear. Still, there were approximately 75 pairs of shoes recovered, which in cemetery contexts has the potential to provide a wealth of information.

Many of the shoes recovered from the cemetery bore the wearer’s footprints—signatures of the lives passed that provide a unique metaphor for a traveling soul. Shoes were identified by the presence of leather shoe uppers, leather soles, or leather heels; exfoliated leather; leather stains; copper eyelets; copper aglets; or cotton lacing usually at or on the feet of the individual in the grave. Fifty-five individuals were buried in footwear. These graves were located in all five areas of the cemetery, but evidence for shoes was proportionally most common in Cemetery Area 3, where more than 6 percent of individuals were interred with shoes. By contrast, around 3.5–4 percent of individuals in Cemetery Areas 1, 2, and 4 were buried with shoes, and only 1 percent of individuals in Cemetery Area 5 were interred with shoes.


Alameda-Stone cemetery with 5 areas shown

Footwear at the Alameda-Stone cemetery was categorized into nine different types. Juveniles were buried in three different types of footwear: lace-up bootie, lace-up ankle boot, and lace-up ankle boot with brass toe-cover.

There were nine infants or children aged 6 months–2.6 years presumably buried in booties constructed of an indeterminate textile material. These booties are represented by the presence of trace amounts of textile, aglets and a few eyelets near the feet of each individual. All of these individuals were located in Cemetery Areas 3 or 4.

There were 18 infants or children aged 6 months–7 years buried in lace-up leather boots. These individuals were recovered from Cemetery Areas 2 or 3.

The third type of childrens shoe is the lace-up ankle boot with brass toe-covers (shown below). There were eight infants or children aged 6 months–7 years buried in this type of shoe. These individuals were buried in Cemetery Areas 3, 4, and 5.


Shoe with copper toe covers from a child's burial

Adults were buried in footwear of six different types: lace-up bootie, lace-up ankle boots, ladies’ boots, pull-up work boots, riding boots, and men’s buckle shoes. There were 2 adults buried in lace-up booties; both of these individuals were buried in Cemetery Area 3. Like the booties recovered with children, these booties may have been a simple foot covering used for sleeping or may have been made specifically for burial.

There were 14 adults buried with lace-up ankle boots. These individuals were buried in all cemetery areas except Cemetery Area 2. Three adults were buried in ladies’ boots. These boots had adornments such as decorative buckles, buttons, or silk lining. These 3 burials were located in Cemetery Areas 3 and 4.

There was 1 adult buried in pull-on work boots (shown below). This individual was located in Cemetery Area 1. There was 1 adult buried in what appear to be riding boots. These boots were badly deteriorated but seem to have been constructed of black leather and were fitted up to the knee. This burial was located in Cemetery Area 2.


Pull-on workboot from female's burial

The last type was a single shoe or bootie with a buckle fastener. This shoe was located in Cemetery Area 1 and was recovered from a grave that had been partially exhumed, presumably during the 1884 removals conducted by the U.S. Army. Skeletal evidence suggested that this grave was occupied by an adult male.

There were 13 females and 8 males buried with footwear. The remaining 35 were juveniles of indeterminate sex. Grave Pit 28077 contained lace-up boots but no human remains. Footwear distribution by sex suggests that proportionally, adult females were buried with footwear relatively more often than adult males, but interpretation of this apparent pattern is complicated by a small sample size of sexed adults with footwear.

Six percent of the adult female population was buried with footwear, compared to 2.5 percent of the adult male population. Four percent of all adults were buried in shoes. Despite their seemingly high numbers, only 5.4 percent of juveniles were buried with footwear. Juveniles were somewhat more likely than adults to have been buried with shoes.

Five European-American individuals were buried with footwear. Footwear types buried with European-Americans included riding boots, ladies’ boots, and childrens lace-up boots with copper toe-covers. Thirteen Hispanic individuals were buried with footwear that included lace-up booties, ladies’ boots, pull-up work boots, and lace-up boots for adults and children. One adult male of Native American ancestry was identified with lace-up boots.
Most of the footwear at the cemetery was poorly preserved; however, some manufacturing techniques were observed. All manufactured footwear was constructed of leather, as opposed to vulcanized rubber.

Interestingly, not all footwear was located on the individuals’ feet. There were three burials in which footwear was loose at the foot end of the coffin. Grave Pit 30599/Burial Feature 28705 held a small child whose shoes were not fitted to its feet. The boots were placed between the legs in the lower half of the coffin. The footwear in Grave Pit 3211/Burial 3713 was also placed between the legs of the young adult male who
was buried there. In this case, one shoe was placed between the legs and the other shoe was placed over the right leg. Grave Pit 7689/Burial Feature 14655 held a small child with the left boot near the left foot and the right boot positioned under the left knee. These inclusions do not have any obvious spiritual correlation and may simply have been a result of difficulty in preparing the deceased. The shoes may have been included
with the individual rather than discarded or reused.


Archaeologists tend to assign the presence of footwear a positive relationship to socioeconomic status. That is to say, if an individual includes something valuable and necessary in a burial, they must have the economic means to replace it. This seems reasonable on its face. However, this interpretation is too narrow. Shoes have symbolic meaning. Taking into consideration the Spanish-Catholic influence in Tucson and the belief in Purgatory, it might be reasonable to think of childrens’ shoes as instrumental in successful travel and spiritual “good fortune”. For females, shoes may be a symbol of gender and identity and burying a wife or sister without her shoes may be in essence robbing her of a key element of her femininity. For males, shoes may be a symbol of gender and professional identity with similar consequences. Yes, shoes can be an indication of socioeconomic status since as Malinowski (1944) theorized basic physiological needs must be met before culturally derived needs can be addressed. In this sense, a parent burying a child may choose to meet the needs of other offspring before addressing the culturally derived spiritual needs of his deceased child.

References Cited

Anderson, Adrienne. 1968. The Archaeology of Mass-Produced Footwear. Historical Archaeology 2:56–65.

Basala, George. 1982. Transformed Utilitarian Objects Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Winter, 1982), pp. 183-201.

Brinkerhoff, Sydney. 1976. Boots and Shoes of the Frontier Soldier. Museum Monograph No. 7. Tucson: Arizona Historical Society.

Connolly, Thomas J. and William J. Cannon. 1999. Comments on “America’s Oldest Basketry.” Radiocarbon 41(3):309-313.

Davidson, James M. 1999. Freedman’s Cemetery (1869–1907): A Chronological Reconstruction of an Excavated African-American Burial Ground, Dallas, Texas. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Description: Toward and Interpretive Theory of Culture, The Interpretation of Culture, New York: Basic Books.

Geib, Phil R. 2000. Sandal Types and Archaic Prehistory on the Colorado Plateau. In American Antiquity Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jul., 2000), pp. 509-524.

Mainfort, Robert C., Jr., and James M. Davidson (editors). 2006. Two Historic Cemeteries in Crawford County, Arkansas. Research Series No. 62. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1944. A Scientific Theory of Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

McChristian, Douglas C. 1995. The U.S. Army in the West 1870–1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Toor, Frances. 1985. A Treasury of Mexican Folkways: The Customs, Myths, Folklore, Traditions, Beliefs, Fiestas, Dances, and Songs of the Mexican People. Reprinted. Bonanza Books, New York. Originally published 1947. New York: Crown Publishers.

Trinkaus, Erik. 2005. Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear use. Journal of Archaeological Science. Volume 32, Issue 10, October 2005, Pages 1515-1526.

I still have my boots!

Author’s note: I’ve tried to link appropriately in-text all electronic documents accessed during my research. If I’ve missed any, please feel free to email me and I’ll happily send you a link. All print resources are listed in my references cited.

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9 Responses to Footwear: Archaeology and Meaning

  1. Ellen says:

    Really interesting post! The pictures of you at 3 and you now with the boots were really fun, too! I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t keep any of my childhood shoes (I probably trashed them all). This is especially tragic in the case of my Jellies!

    One minor thing – the news story you linked to about the shoe-thrower doesn’t say that the journalist who threw the shoe at Bush died, another man who threw a shoe at US forces in Iraq was fired on and killed.

  2. Godoy, Sandy says:

    Dear Kristin: I’m a chilean archaeologist need information about shoes and footwear, very urgent to used in laboratory analysis. Can you help me?

  3. Juliana Sato says:

    Hello Kristin!!!
    I´m a Brazilian student and while I was looking for sites about Shoe´s History I found yours. Very interesting. Great article!!!!

  4. Nancy Howey says:

    Hi Love the article !! I have aquired what I think are childrens burial shoes .They are a infant size 2 they are leather but the sole is varnished and the heels are hard foam rubber . They look like tiny lace up business man shoes. They are 6″ long 2 .5″ wide. No maker marks only the number 2 stamped on bottom of sole. I have not been able to find information on 20th century burial accessories. Thanks Nancy

  5. Hypothek says:

    Found your Blog on yahoo with the Keyword fur fashion. Well done, keep blogging!

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