Brogues and Shoes – communicating Archaeology 2

Hi, my name is John Nicholl. For about 20 years now I have been researching the history and archaeology of leatherworking in Ireland as well as writing specialist reports on various leather finds which have come to light in that time.

I have also spent a great deal of time talking about shoes and other leather artifacts to visitors at museums, heritage sites and more formally to students of archaeology. All of these talks, whether informally on a heritage site or more formally in a classroom have been illustrated by my efforts at reproducing the artifacts of which I speak. This can range from shoes, to bottles, slings, quivers, scabbards and so on – in fact anything made from leather and particularly from an Irish context. Along the way I have made all of the above using original artifacts for patterns. The shoes I make, I wear at re-enacting events. They are invariably talking points as people are curious as to how they feel, are they comfortable, how long would a pair last for – all practical questions which can only be answered by making and testing.


Leatherwork display at the Irish National Heritage Park in Co. Wexford.

And it is the making and testing which I think is the crucial part of the whole activity. As an archaeologist, it teaches me how the materials behave – their strengths and weaknesses. It teaches me to recognize stitching and other tell-tale signs which might indicate what a fragment of leather originally formed a part of. It helps me to tease out a sodden and crumpled piece of leather and to reshape it as it once appeared.

Brogues and Shoes is my attempt at sharing this knowledge and experience with a wider audience beyond the gates of the heritage site or the classroom door. If I encourage anyone else to take up some basic tools and begin to work with leather I will consider the venture a success.

For any students of archaeology who may read this – don’t expect to find all the answers – just a trail to follow in your own research and lots of encouragement to experiment for yourself. And for the real heroes and heroines, the archaeologists digging in the mud and dirt of a medieval ditch or well, perhaps a better insight into the potential of that sodden lump of leather which you tease from the ground.




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