Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Prehistoric Find Bolsters Armenian Pride

Proof of human ingenuity five millennia ago fits Armenians’ sense of themselves as ancient nation.
By Gayane Hakobyan
  • Cave in the village of Areni where a 5,000-year-old shoe was found. (Photo: A1+ TV)
    Cave in the village of Areni where a 5,000-year-old shoe was found. (Photo: A1+ TV)
  • Archaeologists are hoping the cave will give up more secrets from the past. (Photo: A1+ TV)
    Archaeologists are hoping the cave will give up more secrets from the past. (Photo: A1+ TV)
  • The one-piece laced moccasin could have been for a man or a woman. (Photo: A1+ TV)
    The one-piece laced moccasin could have been for a man or a woman. (Photo: A1+ TV)

The discovery of a shoe dating back over 5,000 years has boosted Armenians’ pride in their ancient heritage, as well as pleasure at being in the headlines for a positive reason. More practically, the find could encourage greater foreign interest in Armenia and its archaeological heritage.

The moccasin, made from a single piece of cowhide, was found in a cave in the tiny village of Areni in the Vayots Dzor region in 2008. It shot to fame only recently, when recent carbon dating shows that it could be 5,600 years old. That makes it the world’s oldest item of all-leather footwear, although sandals found in Missouri date back still further.

In Armenia, many are pleased that their country has made international news for a reason other than its troubled relations with neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan.

In Areni itself, revelations about the age of the shoe have created a lot of excitement.

“As a local, I’m very pleased. It fills me with pride to know that this ancient shoe was found here, in our cave,” said resident Sergei Sukiasyan. “Nothing like this has been found here before. Until now, Areni was known for its grapes and wine, but news of this old shoe has gone around the whole world, and that makes me very happy,”

Residents hope the discovery will bring more visitors to their region, tourists as well as archeologists.

“The cave isn’t the only place that contains ancient artifacts. For example, there’s also the Church of the Virgin Mary,” said Asya Simonyan, also from the village.

Boris Gasparyan led the team of archaeologists who made the discovery, and believes it will benefit the country as a whole.

“Many prestigious publications as well as scientific bodies are now talking about Armenia. People who haven’t heard of it are probably looking for it on a map right now,” he said. “It’s the same effect as when our chess players or athletes win a world championship. It’s another way of promoting Armenia – and why not change the world’s perception of us? People need to realise Armenia isn’t just about the genocide, earthquakes and so on. We’ve also got things that are worth travelling to see.”

Armenians proudly trace their history back to Biblical times, and Mount Ararat, a symbol of national identity although it is located just over the border in Turkey, is where Noah’s Ark traditionally came to rest. As part of a wider region that was a cradle of civilisation, it is a rich source of ancient artifacts.

“The fact that Armenia is one of the locations where early civilisation took shape is well known, so we’re not surprised by a find like this,” said Hranush Kharatyan, an ethnographer at Yerevan State University.

“I wouldn’t say that [this find] is what shapes or defines our self-image.”

For non-archaologists, however, the shoe seems to be doing just that.

“This is as it should be. We are an ancient nation and every now and again we discover ancient artifacts. Let everyone know that our history spans the centuries,” said Yerevan economist Eduard Poghosyan.

Plans are already afoot to put the artifact on public display.

“The ancient shoe is currently undergoing a special cleaning procedure and will soon be exhibited at the [National History] Museum,” said Anelka Grigoryan, director of the Armenia’s History Institute.

The lack of funding for sciences in this impoverished former Soviet republic means that the fragile shoe is at risk of disintegration.

“When the shoe was found, it was soft. It has started drying out and if it isn’t conserved properly, we could lose it in ten years,” said Gregory Areshian, an American archeologist of Armenian descent from the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California.

Gayane Hakobyan is a reporter with www.a1plus.am online.