Communicating Archaeology

Hi, my name is John Nicholl and I am an Independent Researcher, Leather Finds Specialist and Experimental Archaeologist. As a researcher, my area of interest focuses on all aspects of Leather-working in Ireland from the Early Medieval to the Post-Medieval periods. Brogues and Shoes is a new venture through which I intend to try and share with a wider audience the results of the last twenty years of my research and experiment on the History and Archaeology of Leatherworking in Ireland.

As a Finds Specialist I have written reports on leather finds from sites all over Ireland including Caherduggan Castle in Co. Cork for Rubicon Heritage, Rathfarnham Castle in Dublin for Archaeology Plan, Drumclay Crannog in Co. Fermanagh for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. More recent projects included the large assemblage from the Ship Street/Chancery lane excavations in Dublin for Archaeological Projects Ltd. Among the finds recovered were a number of Hiberno Norse shoes from the bed of the river Poddle, where it flowed below the walls of Dublin Castle. Every collection of finds can be familiar but different at the same time. The familiar is reassuring. It highlights links between sites and cultures and it places finds in a context. The difference though is exciting. The thrill of opening a finds-bag of mud encased pieces of leather which are not familiar. The gradual teasing out of the puzzle which then drives research to discover and confirm new links not previously known.

Sometimes it is necessary to replicate a find. As an Experimental Archaeologist I have been inspired by the work of the late Olaf Goubitz (1934-2007) who believed “it is impossible to understand historical technology unless you have tried it, and equally impossible to understand ancient footwear unless you have used it” (Goubitz 2007, 8). With this in mind I have made numerous replicas of artefacts as a way of exploring the original method of manufacture and this knowledge and experience feeds into the process of examining a find.

Replica Lucas Type 1 shoes as seen on figures on the Cross of Muiredeach at Monasterboice, Co. Louth.

I have also spent a great deal of time talking about shoes and other leather artefacts to visitors at museums and 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 artefacts 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. 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.


Leatherworking 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.