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A boot from Tønsberg

Of everyday objects excavated from a pre-industrial city context shoes and leather are some of the most frequent. Commonplace and personal objects such as shoes can give us some insight into people’s lives in the medieval cities.

To the right, a knee high boot from the medieval city of Tønsberg (C57759/1113). To the left, a reconstruction of a similar Type 1 boot as referenced in Erik Schias typology. Photo: Vegard Vike, KHM/UiO.

Tønsberg - ‘Norways oldest city

Through the Middle Ages Tønsberg was a place of political power in the country. Several of the kings resided in the city which was a cleric centre with eight churches within city boarders. There have been many archaeological excavations of the city, the first in the 1920s, often because of city expansion. The Museum of Cultural History (KHM) has many stunning objects from Tønsberg, these finds show the significance of the city during the Middle Ages and foremost for people of high rank, but what about objects that show the daily life in the city?

Excavation and preservation

The main task of archaeological conservation at KHM is to treat objects from the ten counties in South-and East Norway, for whom the Museum has managerial responsibility. The field archaeologists register finds and decide what to include into the museum collection. At the moment I am working on finds from an excavation by The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) at Tønsberg - 2010-2012. This excavation was initiated because of expansion of district heating systems; therefore the project was named ‘Fjernvarme 2010’. The project has generated over 600 object finds of leather and up to 90% are shoes, parts of shoes or residual of leather production. This material is preserved thanks to the unusually anaerobe environment. It’s likely that up to 99% of the material and objects used in the Middle Ages was of organic composition; this means that this material is not preserved if the conditions are not favourable. Because of this we get a more ‘true’ perception of the medieval period when materials like leather are preserved. 

As an archaeological conservator my main task is to halt the deterioration of objects, care for and make materials available for research and dissemination to the public. For recently excavated archaeological material such as leather the conservation process can be long, from excavation, documentation, to conservation and finally storage.

Leather after conservation, during packing, from NIKU’s excavation in Tønsberg 2010-2012. Photo: Pia Edqvist, KHM/UiO.

As a first step in the conservation process leather is cleaned from dirt and soil. After this the objects are treated with Polyethylene glycol (PEG), a water soluble wax used to impregnate organic materials, low-molecular PEG replaces a lot of the waters chemical bonds in the leather and prevents shrinkage during the drying process. Impregnation is followed by freeze-drying which is used to prevent further shrinkage of the leather.

Working as a conservator is very rewarding, as we have the chance to follow objects from excavation to exhibition and storage. The experience of being so close to the objects is a privilege reserved for few. This enables a detailed analysis of materials to uncover information about technologies and contribute to the understanding of broader archaeological questions.

The everyday objects - Leather and shoes

Leather was one of the most significant materials used in the pre-industrial society. Raw material like hide and skin was available as a by-product of the meat industry. After processing, the leather, an extremely varied material, both strong and flexible, could be utilized in crafting a broad range of objects. The largest consumption of leather was for the making of shoes.

Shoes and soles from the end of 11th century to early 14th century. Illustration after Erik Schia (1987:402-403).

Generally there are three main categories of shoes. During the 11th century to 13th century lace-up shoes were dominant. During the 13th century boots but also strap-and lace-up shoes were common. 14th Century shoes often have buttons, laces and gradually buckles come into use. Clear differences between female or male shoes has not been proven, but in attempts to distinguish the two, the length of the sole has been used. Following Erik Shia (1987) a sole length of 24 cm indicates a female shoe, while a shoe for a man can be up to 30 cm long. Children’s shoes were the same as adults, but during the 14th century it became commonplace for children to also wear boots.

Shoes during the Middle Ages and their different parts. Illustration after Järpe, A: Ambrosiani, B: Gestsson, G. (1982:356).

Shoes in the mediaeval period were made with a turnshoe construction, meaning the shoe was made inside-out by sewing the lower edge of the upper to the edge of the sole. The shoe is then turned the right way round and the sole seam is now inside. This was done to preserve the delicate seams. To connect the two parts in the shaft leather edge-flesh butt seam was commonly used, sometimes also whip stitches. This neater seam would hold the leather together edge to edge. The shoes were until the 15th Century made very light.

Shoes as an object category can be used for typological dating, where social and demographic conditions can be highlighted. They can tell us about contemporary fashion and status, but also about the shoemakers craft by exploring areas like off-cuts and evidence of reuse or repair. Studies of shoe materials are often compared to other northern European collections.

A boot excavated at the ‘Fjernvarme 2010’ project in Tønsberg (C57759/1113). To the right a boot of similar type from Lűbeck, Germany. Photo: Pia Edqvist, KHM/UiO. Illustration after Volken (2014:142).

A boot

When a shoe has a shaft streching from the ankle and some way up towards the knee it’s defined as a boot. Some boots where made with fastenings in the Middle Ages, but one type is without. These became defined as Type 1 boots by archaeologist Erik Schia (1975). During ‘Fjernvarme 2010’ there were 14 boots located; these belong to the category Type 1 boots and C57759/1113, is a very well preserved example, rarely seen. This example consists of a nearly complete shaft, which is only missing a smaller rectangular fragment inserted at the top back of the leg. Complements like these were commonplace as leather was expensive. On the top part of the shaft is an incised/scored line, possibly similar to the example from Lübeck, Germany. The height of the shaft is c. 39 cm and indicates that the boot was knee height and ends in a very clear tip/point at the front top. The vamp and sole is missing. Based on style, fashion and comparative examples the boot is likely from the period 1250-1350. Conclusions based on an example from Lübeck dating to 1200-1225, an example from Breda, the Netherlands from 14th century, and examples from Norway dating to the period from ca. 1250-1350.

Example of Type 1 boot from Gamlebyen in Oslo (C34011/G6608). Illustration after Schia (1977:108).

The boot is made of calfskin, which was commonly used during this period. The leather for the shaft was made from the animal’s side- and stomach area, while soles were made of the thicker parts of the animal such as the back, alternatively tougher hide from oxen or cow.

Another comparable example of a boot shaft was excavated in Tønsberg in 1973, in Nedre Langgate 45. These two relatively complete shafts of knee height are an exception when it comes to the level of preservation. Most examples of Type 1 boots are located only as the lower vamp and foot part discarded as the shaft was roughly cut away for reuse. The secondary reuses of most shafts of the type 1 boots makes the identification of such examples difficult, but specimens can still be distinguished by the use of a separate vamp and shaft, at odds with other contemporary shoes. Finds of Type 1 boots occur in lesser quantity from other European cities, but are numerous from Oslo with more than 50 examples. Few of these examples are measurable on the other hand. Nevertheless based on a tendency of very narrow boot shafts and an example with a 24 cm long sole Erik Schia concludes that the type 1 boots might have been made primarily for women (Schia 1987:367).


Gallery - a medieval boot from Tønsberg


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Järpe, A: Ambrosiani, B: Gestsson, G.(1982). Nomina rerum mediaevalium : náfnaskrá um midaldahluti = nomenklatur for genstande fra nordisk middelalder = nomenklatur for gjenstander fra nordisk middelalder. Alvheim & Bide, Akademisk Forlag, Øvre Ervik

Grew, F. & De Neergaard, M. (1988) Shoes and Pattens : Finds from Medieval Excavations in London. Vol. 2. London: HMSO.

Hansson, S. & Ross, P. (2011) ‘Skotillverkning i teori och praktik’ Hantverk förr och nu. Fotevikens Museum 2011.

By Pia Edqvist, archaeological conservator
Published Nov. 24, 2017 5:16 PM - Last modified June 1, 2022 9:25 AM