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The Iron Age child’s shoe found in an Austian salt mine. Source: Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum

2000-Year-Old Child’s Leather Shoe Found in Austrian Salt Mine


This is not the first time German archaeologists have recovered well-preserved shoes from the Dürrnberg salt mine in Austria. However, what is a first, is the remarkable discovery of a child’s shoe, dating all the way back to the Iron Age.

Since 2001, the German Mining Museum Bochum, a Leibniz Research Museum specializing in Georesources, has been educating the public about ancient mining at the Dürrnberg site, near Hallein, in Salzburg, Austria. The Dürrnberg is historically significant due to its ancient rock salt mining, that dates back to the Iron Age.

Remarkably, this year’s excavations in the Georgenberg tunnel, led by Professor Dr. Thomas Stöllner, the head of the research area, have resulted in the remarkable discovery of “an exceptionally well-preserved child's shoe” that was crafted and worn over 2000 years ago.

The “exceptionally well-preserved child's shoe” was found in the Dürrnberg salt mine. (Klaus Stange)

The “exceptionally well-preserved child's shoe” was found in the Dürrnberg salt mine. (Klaus Stange)

Preserving the Lost Crafts of Ancient Mining

The German Mining Museum Bochum was founded in 1930 and is one of eight research museums of the Leibniz Association. The current research on Iron Age prehistoric salt production at Dürrnberg near Hallein in Austria is part of a long-term research project by the Institute for Archaeological Sciences at Ruhr University in Bochum, which is  funded by Salinen Austria AG and Salinen Tourismus.

The German Mining Museum Bochum, or Leibniz Research Museum for Georesources, focuses on the history of geo-resource extraction, processing, and use across various ages. The mining history documentation center, known as "montan.dok," encompasses research areas like archaeometallurgy, mining history, materials science, and mining archaeology. Visitors to the site explore an approximately 1.2 km [0.75 miles] subterranean network of underground tunnels, learning about hard coal, mining, mineral resources, and art.

Salt-Preserved Subterranean Secrets

An article in  Archeonews says finds such as this children's shoe, but also textile remains and excrement, such as those found on the Dürrnberg, offer archaeologists an “extremely rare insight” into the life of ancient Iron Age miners. Prof. Dr. Thomas Stoellner said, “Organic materials usually decompose over time,” but he described the condition of this child’s shoe as “outstanding.”

Matching a modern size 30 children’s shoe, the artifact was so well preserved due to the salt. Salt is hygroscopic, which means it has a strong affinity for water molecules, so when salt comes into contact with leather, it absorbs moisture, effectively dehydrating it.

Researchers with wickerwork which was found in the ancient salt mine in Austria. (Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum)

Researchers with wickerwork which was found in the ancient salt mine in Austria. (Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum)

Other Organic Treasures of the Austrian Salt Mine

While this child’s shoe is special, this is not the first time ancient footwear has been recovered from the Dürrnberg salt mine, which all date to over 2,000 years old. All the shoes are remarkably well-preserved due to the unique environmental conditions of salt mines that prevent the decay and decomposition of organic materials like leather. And they all provide valuable insights into the footwear and daily lives of people in the region during the Iron Age.

Beside this child’s shoe, the team of archaeologists also found “fur from a hood and lacing made of flax or linen.” These items, when interpreted with the design of the shoe, suggest it was most probably made and worn in the 2nd century BC. Further organic items were found near the shoe including a piece from a wooden shovel, in the shape of half a shovel blade.

Other artifacts discovered within the Dürrnberg salt mine in Austria. (Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum)

Other artifacts discovered within the Dürrnberg salt mine in Austria. (Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum)

Excavating to Estimate the Amount of Salt Mined

Well-preserved shoes from ancient times not only offer archaeologists insights into the craftsmanship of the era and the technology used for leatherworking, but also into the daily lives of the people who worked in or around the salt mines. And shoes also provide information about footwear fashion, and the preferred styles of the time.

Excavations at the mine will continue, with the goal of opening up the entire site, to better understand the work and lifestyles of the Iron Age miners. Furthermore, the archaeologists aim to determine exactly how big the Dürrnberg mining halls were, to ultimately estimate how much salt was extracted during the Iron Age.

Top Image: The Iron Age child’s shoe found in an Austian salt mine. Source: Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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