Waterlogged conditions on the Thames waterfront and in the Walbrook river valley (recently featured in the Secret Rivers exhibition at Museum of London Docklands) have created the oxygen-free environment needed for the survival of ancient organic artefacts.
Around 3,500 objects have been found, many of them extremely well preserved. However, until recently very little of the Roman leatherwork from London had been studied or published. Recently, a project was undertaken to catalogue and reinterpret around 750 objects in the Museum of London’s collection of material, excavated from the 19th century to the 1970s.
89% of this material is footwear. This is typical of Roman sites, where tough vegetable tanned shoe leather is better preserved than the more fragile leather used in furniture, tents or clothing. The introduction of vegetable tanned leather and the expansion of ironworking were some of the major technological innovations of the Roman period; allowing the mass production of sturdy, hobnailed shoes. As a disposable form of fashion, leather footwear soon became a key part of the growing materialism of the Roman period. London’s Roman leather is therefore a vital resource for studying technological and social change in the period.
A shoe for every occasion
We tend to think of the Romans only wearing their iconic caliga sandals; the robust hobnailed marching shoe of the Roman military. But these shoes weren’t in vogue for very long, going out of style in less than half a century after the conquest of Britain and foundation of Londinium. In their place came a vast array of fashionable footwear.