A curious object found at Verulamium

Hipposandal (Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr)

In an article for the Society’s November 2018 Newsletter, Dr Mario Musto describes the Roman footwear for horses discovered at Verulamium

In support of my AMA award in Museum Studies, I have recently been researching iron finds recovered during the excavation at Verulamium in 1996/97. During my project I came across some curious devices called hipposandals.

Often found in museum collections, these devices seem to be made to protect horses’ hooves. Hooves do not naturally require protection but, with the growing domestic use of horses, methods had to be found to stop lameness. In the Victorian period, the aphorism ‘No foot, no horse’ stressed the importance of hoof care.

The hipposandal and its origins

Much earlier the Greeks had realised this too: the philosopher, Xenophon, noted in his work, On Horsemanship, that the hoof may be damaged when it takes weight; in Anabasis, he tells us of horses wearing protection, referring to ‘socks’, a sort of leather boot. Others suggest that the hipposandal was supported underneath by a turminem (a conical object). This was placed on the opposite healthy foot to the lame one. The benefit was that it raised the hindquarter for healing.

The Romans began to use horses at an early period. Although their army was mainly composed of infantry, in the later empire they were reliant on the horse; for example, one of Emperor Vespasian’s generals, Antonius, used his cavalry to charge the enemy as a form of ‘shock and awe.’ We know the Romans practised hoof pairing (trimming) to protect the important frog (on the underside of the hoof).

So who ‘invented’ the horseshoe? Various types of ancient horseshoe have been recovered in England and elsewhere. Two were found in 1723 at Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, close to where the Roman road crosses through a large barrow. At the time it was suggested they might be from a Royal Celtic sepulchre because of their shape. These horseshoes are nailed and go back before the Roman conquest.

The different types of hipposandals

Hipposandals (otherwise solea ferrea) have also been found at Verulamium (See Fig. 1) and other Roman sites in Britain and France as well as a Frankish grave. Their forms vary, but chiefly consist of three types: the first has an oval plate of metal with a pyriform or circular opening in the middle; the second has a much narrower oval plate and a longer heel in front, occasionally flanked by clips; the third has a posterior hook, two lateral appendages, which extend towards the front of the plate, until they meet and meld together, forming a strong hook. (See Fig. 2)

The use of hipposandals has been the subject of much debate from the 19th century onwards. A veterinary surgeon identified them as hippopodes pathologiques, that is sandals intended to protect and cure diseased or worn hooves, so that it would helped to keep correct pressure on the frog; others have come to the conclusion that they are ox-sandals, only to be worn during livestock movements. A farming chariot in a bas relief at Langre (France) suggests a skid.

A temporary device, not a permanent solution

A reconstruction for TV’s Time Team shows a very unhappy horse wobbling about on a set of hipposandals looking uncomfortable. I think that in ancient times shoeing horses very much depended on the diversity of the country’s climate, on the hoof’s strength, and on the construction of the roads. Anatomists and farriers in defining the best way of protecting horses hooves came across the hipposandal as a temporary shoe to prevent wear on impervious roads. To conclude, the hipposandal could not be a permanent solution, as a horse shod in this way could not walk for long and even less likely keep a fast gait.

A fully referenced version of this note is available in the Society’s Library. My thanks to Simon West for his comments on an early draft of this article. [This article was published in the November 2018 edition of the Society’s Newsletter]