In 2019, a Norwegian mountaineer stumbled across a soggy, twisted blob of leather on a patch of ice. Before continuing, he reported the find to archaeologists with Secrets of the Ice, a project that researches ancient trade routes exposed in recent decades by melting icepack. “He sent us GPS coordinates and photos, and left the discovery in the ice. Well done,” Espen Finstad, the project’s co-director, tells Live Science. Afraid an oncoming snowstorm might bury the find again, archaeologists hustled to the location and found what turned out to be an intact 1,500-year-old rawhide shoe.
It wasn’t the first shoe discovered near a mile-high mountain pass called Horse Ice Patch, but it is the oldest; moreover, it is not a typical old Norwegian shoe. It’s more like a Roman sandal. “The similarity to footwear within the Roman Empire is striking,” co-director Lar Holger Pilo tells Ars Technica. “Roman imports have been found in South Norway previously (especially weapons), but the shoe tells us that ideas and fashion traveled as well.” He and colleagues have been mapping the ancient trails, guided by centuries-old stone cairns and debris travelers dropped along the way.
Although prehistoric shoemakers were quite skilled, rawhide-soled shoes were apt to wear out frequently in the rugged mountains; travelers would simply discard them and replace them with a new pair. Researchers have also found animal bones, arrowheads, a prehistoric ski, and all sorts of other objects. Per ScienceNorway, the artifacts have altered scientists' assumptions about the seemingly uninhabitable wilderness and provide “an entirely new story, another context than just an item you found in the ice.” The team announced its conclusions about the shoe on Twitter, and videos of past expeditions can be viewed on its YouTube channel. (Read about more discoveries.)