Lined with hay and held together by a net of rough string, the "Iceman's" leather shoes look bulky, itchy and downright uncomfortable. But if they were...
ZLIN, Czech Republic — Lined with hay and held together by a net of rough string, the “Iceman’s” leather shoes look bulky, itchy and downright uncomfortable.
But if they were good enough for Oetzi, the 5,300-year-old man found in an alpine glacier in 1991, they’re good enough for the modern foot, insists Petr Hlavacek, a Czech shoe expert who has created replicas, taken them out for a walk and pronounced them far better than most modern footwear.
“These shoes are very comfortable. They are perfectly able to protect your feet against hard terrain, against hot temperatures, against cold temperatures,” he said, showing off the replicas in his office at Tomas Bata University in this eastern Czech town.
Despite their flimsy leather soles, the shoes offer a good grip and superb shock absorption, and are blister-free, Hlavacek said.
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It’s like going barefoot, “only better,” he said. “In the Oetzi shoes, you feel something like freedom, flexibility.”
After studying the original shoes at the museum in Mainz, Germany, where they are stored, Hlavacek set out with his colleagues to duplicate them.
Vaclav Gresak, a university lecturer and saddler who describes himself as the “hands” and Hlavacek as the “brain,” described the challenge.
First there was the string for the net that kept the hay in place — they had to figure out what it was made of. Ready-made string was out of the question. Eventually, Gresak happened upon an old man who remembered how to make it from thin strips of inner bark.
Then they had to get the right leather. Tests had determined it came from three different animals. Calf skin, no problem. Deer skin, ditto; deer are plentiful here. Finding bear skin for the sole, however, wasn’t easy. Gresak finally got his hands on a tattered skin of a bear killed in Canada by a wealthy Czech hunter.
Then the team had to find a method to tan it that would have been available to Oetzi.
Having read an ancient American Indian recipe for tanning, he boiled chopped pig liver and added raw pig’s brain. The fatty goo was smeared onto the skin and left for three days.
“It smelled very bad and there were a lot of flies,” Gresak recalled. But it worked.
Now came one of the hardest parts — measuring Oetzi’s feet. Hlavacek received permission for 20 minutes of what he describes as “very hard work.”
A plaster model of Oetzi’s small, slender foot — the size of a modern 12-year-old boy’s — sits on a shelf in his office.
The next challenge was finding hay suitable for the lining. Hlavacek had some boy and girl scouts make their own shoes, fill them with grass and try them out.
“The children protested,” Hlavacek said. The grass was itchy and abrasive.
Eventually the researchers found a grass that was long, soft and resilient. It was perfect for Oetzi shoes.
Hlavacek and his team made three pairs of replicas, and several bigger pairs to fit the researchers. Now it was time for a field test — a two-day hike in Alpine terrain near the Italy-Austria border where Oetzi was found.
Conditions weren’t ideal: There was snow and temperatures were freezing, but Vaclav Patek, a Czech mountaineer who took part in the hike, recalled that the shoes “were a pleasant surprise.”
Because Hlavacek takes a scientific approach to shoes, he had the replicas tested for pressure absorption, temperature and other factors.
The Oetzi shoes beat modern footwear in most categories aside from being able to withstand moisture.