26 April, 2006

Horseshoes in Roman and post-Roman use

A couple of weeks ago, Channel 4's Time Team archaeology programme was investigating a Roman mansio, which they described as the approximate equivalent of a motel and wayside inn, in the South of England. One of the most interesting items in the programme was an attempt to reconstruct a hippo sandal. These unlikely-looking objects are rare finds from the Roman period and are usually described as Roman horseshoes, used to protect horses' hooves for long journeys on metalled roads or when pulling heavy loads. So the programme got a farrier to try making a pair and fitting them to an obliging horse.

The horse looked very uncomfortable wearing them and walked awkwardly, reminiscent of someone teetering on platform soles. The farrier said he thought the horse would catch its legs on the front spike of the hippo sandal when it tried to turn, that it wouldn’t be able to pull a heavy load, and that he would certainly not ask it to try to trot while wearing them. He suggested that they were not actually used for long journeys on metalled roads or for hauling heavy loads at all, but that they might have been used to hold a poultice in place on the hoof. I'm not sure I'm convinced by that, because the horse would surely still be at risk of stabbing or catching itself with the spikes, possibly even more so if it was already lame. I'd have thought binding a poultice in place with cloth or leather might be safer. But I'll take his word for it as a possibility.

Which made me wonder whether Roman and post-Roman horses were shod, and if so, what with, if not with hippo sandals? And if they weren’t shod, how did they manage when travelling long distances on hard-packed Roman roads?

Horses in their natural environment obviously manage fine without horseshoes. Wikipedia lists reasons why domestic animals may need them, but notes that with appropriate care, domestic horses can grow hooves as strong as wild horses and no longer need shoes. Proponents of natural hoofcare argue that horses were not shod in the ancient world, and one website lists the evidence for the absence of horseshoes in various classical sources. It specifically notes that Xenophon gives detailed instructions on how to care for unshod horses’ hooves but never mentions horseshoes, and provides further discussion on a separate page.

So this suggests that horseshoes were not necessarily in routine use in Roman times, despite the metalled roads.

What about post-Roman times? Direct evidence comes from the horse buried in Mound 17 of the Sutton Hoo site in Suffolk, Britain and dated to the 7th century AD (Carver 1998). The burial showed no trace of iron horseshoes. Numerous other iron artefacts had survived and the horse was found intact, part sand-body* and part skeleton, so it seems certain that iron horseshoes would have survived had they been present. As this was a high-status, possibly royal, burial, the owner would have been able to afford horseshoes had he wished. So their absence suggests to me either that they were a low-status item (in which case they ought to turn up regularly in excavated rubbish pits and the like, and they don't), or that iron horseshoes were not in routine use in the period. (Which may be a useful snippet for writers of Roman- and post-Roman-set fiction).

So when did horseshoes come into regular use? Theories abound. An article in the Danish Veterinary Journal suggests that the horseshoe was invented in China and/or Mongolia and brought westwards into Europe by the Huns, but the abstract doesn't specify a date.

Another suggestion is that horseshoes came into common use during the Crusades. The writer comments that Crusaders used big Flemish horses that had big flat feet from being raised on damp lowlands. I think it quite likely that a breed of horse that had evolved, perhaps with the help of selective breeding, in the damp climates of north-western Europe probably would have developed large feet to spread their weight on soft, muddy ground. It seems plausible to me that such horses would have suffered disproportionately when they were taken to the hard, dry, stony terrain of the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Perhaps that prompted shoeing to be widely taken up? Or perhaps it was a matter of fashion?

Do you know? Or would you care to hazard a guess or advance a theory?

Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, London, 1998, ISBN 0-7141-0591-0.

*sand-body. The acid sandy soil of the Sutton Hoo site preserved the external shape of some human and animal bodies as a crusty layer of dark sand that was visible on careful excavation. The picture on the left of the second row in this link gives an idea of their appearance.

12 comments:

Alex Bordessa said...

As well as hipposandals there are actual horseshoes known from the Roman period. They have a wavy rim and punched holes; a partial one was found at Vindolanda, for example. Hyland (Equus, 1990) reckons that hipposandals were used for relief from hoof ailments, or perhaps for slow traction. Not all hipposandals have the 'crampons' But she says that horses in the Roman period were unlikely to be shod as a matter of course. Hot climates would help unshod hooves become hard and wear resistant. Whereas as wet climates might encourage hooves to become very soft and break down easily.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

While Flemish horses were probably used, it has to be taken into account that the Flemish horse developed in weight as time went on and the Flemish horses of the crusading period were not the same as the Flemish horses of the later middle ages and modern periods. There was a fundamental flaw in Tim Severin's book about going to Jerusalem by horse, following the route of the first crusade and riding an Ardennes heavy horse. What he was riding was a beast that had been bred for the toil of the industrial revolution, and bore very little resemblance to a destrier. Horses of hot blood with hard hooves were bred into destrier stock from at least the Norman period. William The Conqueror was given a Spanish stallion by umm...either the pope or king of Spain, can't recall offhand. Robert de Belleme ran grey Spanish stallions on his stud in the Welsh Marches. Horses of Lombardy and Spain were the most highly prized in the early period. The early warhorses appear to have been stocky, strong smallish beasts - similar to the Welsh Cob, the heavier Andalusian, the Morgan and the American Quarter horse. They needed to be 'steer' roping horses rather than draught animals.
Which doesn't answer the original question, I know, but the point I'm making is that one needs to be careful when considering the type of horses existing in Flanders during the early Medieval period.
Ann Hyland's books are good on this subject - The Medieval Warhorse from Byzantium to the Crusades in particular. There's also an article by Matthew Bennet The Medieval Warhorse reconsidered in Medieval Knighthood V: Papers from the 6th Strawberry Hill Conference. There's also The Medieval Horse and its Equipment: Medieval finds from Excavtions in London which has a detailed section on horseshoes.

Minx said...

Hello Carla,
I'm sorry that I don't have anything to say about horseshoes but i would like to say thanks for coming over.
In answer to your question I have written five novels, three of which I am now actively promoting. 'Coven of One' is possibly the nearest that I am going to get to a historical novel - set in an alternative Cornwall in the late seventeeth century. It tells of a country torn apart by its religious wars, Pagan and Christian. It has been a joy to use both my knowledge of local history and Paganism and incorporate into a story that I am extremely proud of. let's hope someone else will think so!!

Minx said...

Hello Carla,
I'm sorry that I don't have anything to say about horseshoes but i would like to say thanks for coming over.
In answer to your question I have written five novels, three of which I am now actively promoting. 'Coven of One' is possibly the nearest that I am going to get to a historical novel - set in an alternative Cornwall in the late seventeeth century. It tells of a country torn apart by its religious wars, Pagan and Christian. It has been a joy to use both my knowledge of local history and Paganism and incorporate into a story that I am extremely proud of. let's hope someone else will think so!!

Carla said...

Minx - hello, and thanks for dropping by. Good luck with your novels.

Alex - I dimly remembered a reference to Roman horseshoes of the 'ordinary' kind but couldn't remember where I'd seen it; it was probably in something from Vindolanda. Many thanks for that. Does the book speculate about the effect, if any, of the damp British climate on Roman horses? Or perhaps there were different breeds in different parts of the empire to suit local conditions.

I had the impression that hippo sandals were quite rare finds - is that fair, do you think? I was also wondering if horseshoes are common on medieval and later digs from the period when they were in routine use. Or was iron so valuable they were recycled?

Elizabeth - many thanks! I didn't know Tim Severin used the wrong sort of horse. Were horseshoes in routine use in the medieval period, or were they something only a knight would have been able to afford?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I can't answer your horseshoe question about routine use without going digging, so I'll have to take raincheck at the moment. I started reading the Museum of London book last night and found it very interesting though on various horsey aspects. I would think the use was more widespread than just the aristocracy i.e. used by the merchants classes and transport industry but I'd have to look further to say for sure. I do recall from long ago research that the smelteries in the Forest of Dean were turning out horse shoe bars in in the early Medieval period. The Museum of London book says that looking at the wear and tear on the horse shoes, they certainly weren't replaced as often as modern ones.
Re Tim Severin: Matthew Bennet in his Strawberry Hill article, comments specifically on Tim's use of a cart horse - which I'd sussed from my own researches on the subject.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - many thanks! Just a query on terminology - I guess that "early Medieval" in this context means 11th century or so, i.e. somewhere around the Norman conquest. Is that right?

Alex Bordessa said...

I managed to find the horseshoe stuff, but I guess further info might be in the book. The comment about boggy conditions having an effect on the hooves infers that Britain might not be the best place for shoeless horses - but then at least the Romans built all those roads ... If concerned about Roman horses, Equus by Anne Hyland seems to be a good book to read.

As for hipposandals - in a long time looking after finds from excavations, I didn't come across one. I did see the wavy edged horseshoe from one site, but in general, I don't think they're particularly common. Metalwork such as brooches, coins, iron nails, etc. are far more numerous.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla,
Your query re Early Medieval. I always feel as if I'm sticking my head above a parapet when that subject crops up because there are so many versions of datelines. If I say early Medieval, I usually mean my own stamping ground, say 1000 to 1250, although I know that academics take it way earlier than 1000. As I recall, the Forest of Dean horse shoe bars were Stephen/Matilda period, so mid 12th. Something I read in passing and my dustbin memory picked up - as is its wont. Then it forgets from whence it picked it up!

Alan Fisk said...

I don't know anything about horses, but when I was in Bulgaria four years ago (Bulgarian is one of my nationalities), I saw a couple of gypsies driving a horse and cart on the grass. When they had to cross a metalled road, the horse started slipping and stumbling, and I noticed that the horse wasn't shod. When I mentioned this to a friend who is an expert horsewoman, she told me that I had misinterpreted what I had seen, and that horses don't really need horseshoes. I remain in ignorance and confusion.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - thanks for confirming the date range; I thought you probably meant something like that. Some historians use 'early medieval' to mean the period before the Norman Conquest.

Alan - thanks for your comment, and that's an interesting example of unshod horses in contemporary use. I've seen the case passionately argued from both sides and, like you, am not clear on the 'right' answer (if there is one).

Tony Johnson said...

The Roman road at Thronbourgh, Buckinghamshire was littered with horseshoes where it forded the river Twin. Unfortunately the context can not be regarded as truly stratified. However, everything else recovered from the surface (which was locally sealed below post Roman alluvium) was Roman. These included coins, pottery, brooches and other contemporary artefacts.

Records of Buckinghamshire v.xx part 1 1975 pp 3-56.