Following in our ancestors' footwear

July 7, 2000

Patricia Reid has been literally following in our ancestors'footsteps.

The postgraduate student at University College London has tracked a route back to the lives of ordinary people in the Dark Ages through the remains of discarded shoes.

Reid has embarked on the first systematic survey of footwear from a number of major excavations across Northern Europe to create a picture of changing Dark Age fashion.

Beyond rather unusual finds, such as the bizarre one-piece, asymmetrical shoes, found in Cheapside, London, she believes shifts in styles might contain clues to more significant cultural changes.

Remains from London in the 10th to 11th centuries have thrown up tantalising hints of this. The arrival of the Danish king Cnut and his conquest of England appears to have sparked a switch in London from chunkier Saxon-style footwear to higher-cut Scandinavian fashions. Perhaps the city's inhabitants were trying to adopt the look of their rulers.

No similar switch can be identified to coincide with the Norman Conquest, but at the end of the century a fad for unusually long, floppy shoes emerges as Gothic architecture and art began to blossom.

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