Concealed Shoes and the Theoretical Archaeologist

This week I gave a paper at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference at Bradford. I was contributing to the ‘Blurring the Boundaries: Interdisciplinary perspectives on archaeology’ session, and my paper was entitled ‘If the (concealed) shoe fits: The logical pairing of archaeology and folklore’. Having introduced the concealed shoe and proposed some theories for its uses, I then outlined the logic – indeed, the necessity – of analysing the shoe from an archaeological perspective, by considering the shoes’ locations, shapes, materials, and conditions in theorising why and how such seemingly innocuous items were ritually recycled as concealed objects and, possibly, apotropaic devices.

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I was curious about how my paper would be received by a room of theoretical archaeologists. Fortunately it seemed to go down well and, during my post-paper discussion, some interesting questions were asked and some insightful theories were flagged. I intend to take each point raised separately and write a more detailed post for each one, but for now I’ll give the highlights.

One woman, Kate, asked if some shoes might have been concealed more as a memento than as an apotropaic device, and she offered a modern parallel. Recently she’d been digging around under her stairs and had come across a pair of tiny wellington boots that had once belonged to her child. Long outgrown, Kate had considered throwing them away years ago but had been reluctant to simply discard them, nostalgia staying her hand, and so they ended up under her stairs. Their recent discovery led to re-concealment; Kate had buried them deeper beneath the stairs, wanting to keep them out of the way but somewhere safe, somewhere close by. Kate has kindly agreed to be interviewed by me, so hopefully soon I’ll be able to go into this modern concealment in more depth.

Another archaeologist was particularly interested in the notion of the concealed shoes acting as lures: the malevolent forces mistake the shoes for their wearers, thus attacking the shoes themselves, leaving the people of the household unharmed. He noted the empathy evident in this notion: malevolent forces can make errors of judgment, can mistake the identity of someone or something, just as humans can. I guess it’s no surprise that humans would populate the supernatural world with beings and entities that are on the one hand very different to us, but on the other, very much alike.

Another listener drew parallels between my research and his own. Philip Tonner has written about German philosopher Heidegger’s theories concerning Van Gogh’s Pair of Shoes, and he linked this painting to the theories I’d presented about shoes and their metonymical connections with their wearers (see my blog about selfhood and shoes in Paris).

Pair of Shoes Van Gogh

In Philip’s paper ‘Are Animals Poor in the World? A critique of Heidegger’s Anthropocentrism’ Tonner quotes Heidegger as saying:

‘From out of the dark opening of the well-worn insides of the shoes the toil of the worker’s tread stares forth… The shoes vibrate with the silent call of the earth, its silent gift of the ripening grain, its unexplained self-refusal in the wintry field… This equipment [the shoes] belongs to the earth and finds protection in the world of the peasant woman… In virtue of this reliability the peasant woman is admitted into the silent call of the earth; in virtue of the reliability of the equipment she is certain of her world.’

This is a fascinating perspective on shoes, one that – not having come from a background in philosophy or art history – I hadn’t come across before. But that’s the joy of speaking at an interdisciplinary session: you may think that all angles of a topic have been exhausted, but you’ll quickly be proven wrong.

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3 thoughts on “Concealed Shoes and the Theoretical Archaeologist

  1. Hi Ceri

    Helen Frisby sent me a link to your work. Fascinating – a really far-reaching exploration of this phenomenon.

    In 2013 we completed a sociological project on footwear and identity at Sheffield University which included working closely with Northampton Shoe Museum (post June Swann but we did meet her). If you haven’t come across the project you’ll find it on the ESRC website – ‘If the Shoe Fits’ (Hockey and Robinson – with Dilley and Sherlock). Concealed shoes certainly came up in the course of the work, even though our focus was on contemporary, worn shoes.

    With an anthropological background I did wonder about the idea of concealed items as sacrificial – in that shoes are often single and garments are likely to be torn. But it wasn’t a thought I pursued very thoroughly! Also the idea that sealed internal domestic spaces might trap malevolence and needed safeguarding through ritual practices.

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    1. Hello Jenny,

      Thank you very much for getting in touch. I’ve just checked out the ‘If the Shoe Fits’ webpage and I love your shoe stories (particularly your poems!). It’s very interesting that you should mention the concealed shoe as sacrificial as I’m writing a paper at the moment called ‘The Other Shoe’ which considers why single shoes tended to be concealed and what happened to its partner. The idea about malevolence having been trapped in a sealed internal domestic space is also fascinating – are there parallels to this elsewhere, do you know?

      Are you familiar with Naomi Braithwaite at Nottingham Trent? She gave a paper at the ‘Marginalised Mainstream’ conference in 2014 all about shoes and identity – it was really interesting and got a lot of discussion going. I think everyone has got a story to tell about their shoes!

      All the best, Ceri

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