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Diana Zardarian

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Hasmik Smbatian

For a young Armenian archaeologist who stumbled on what scientists think is the world’s oldest leather shoe, it was a dream come true which she still finds hard to believe.

“It was my dream,” Diana Zardarian said Friday of her historic find on September 16, 2008 in a cave in Armenia’s southeastern Vayots Dzor region, which has made headlines around the world. The 27-year-old post-graduate student conducted excavations there in a team of fellow employees of Armenia’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography and visiting archaeologists from Ireland and the United States.

“I knew that organic artifacts are very rarely found during excavations, especially from the Copper Age layers that are 6,000 years old,” she told RFE/RL in an interview on Friday. “At first I couldn’t believe it’s that old.

“I stood still for a couple of minutes in the excavation site. Everyone asked, ‘Diana, what happened?’ I said, ‘People, my dream has come true, I’ve found a shoe.’ Nobody believed me.”

With Armenia lacking modern radiocarbon test facilities, four samples of the shoe’s cow-hide leather were sent to specialized laboratories in California and Oxford, England for examination. Scientists there took more than 18 months to confirm that the item dates back to around 3,500 BC, an era known as the Chalcolithic period, or Copper Age.

“We were cleaning up the clay floor dating back to 3600-3300 B.C., and all of sudden a large cluster of dry reeds came up,” recalled Zardarian. “I asked laborers to go out so I could take a closer look at them. As I removed more soil from the reeds, I got deeper and deeper into them and then exposed a very beautiful and special pit. It was plastered with very high-quality yellow clay.”

At the bottom of the pit Zardarian found a pair of sheep’s horns lying on a clay bowl turned upside down. “When I raised it a little I felt that there is something underneath,” she said. “Because the pit was deep, about 50 centimeters, and dark, I couldn’t see what lay on its floor. In fact, I was digging it with my right hand without seeing anything.

“When my hand reached the floor I felt some organic stuff, which I at first thought is a cow ear. I took it out and got absolutely transfixed. It was a shoe turned upside down.”

“Everyone was stunned by how well preserved that 6,000-year-old shoe was,” she added with a smile. “Even the shoe-laces were preserved.”

Armenian and foreign scientists attribute that to the stable, cool and dry conditions that have existed in the cave for several millennia. They say preservation was also helped by the fact that its floor was covered by a thick layer of sheep dung which acted as a solid seal over the objects.

It is not yet known whether the shoe, matching a modern-day European size 37 or U.S. size 7, belonged to a man or woman. Zardarian said her state-run research institute plans to commission DNA tests for that purpose. She confirmed that the artifact will eventually be put on permanent display at the National History Museum in Yerevan.

Previously the oldest leather shoe discovered in Europe or Asia was on the famous Otzi, the "Iceman" found frozen in the Alps a few years ago and now preserved in Italy. Otzi has been dated to 5,375 and 5,128 years ago, a few hundred years more recent than the Armenian shoe.

The oldest known footwear in the world are sandals thought to be around 2,500 years older than the Armenian leather shoe. They were found in a cave in Missouri in the United States.

The Vayots Dzor cave located near wine-growing Areni village was apparently the site of an ancient human settlement. Other finds there included large ceramic containers, many of which held wheat, barley, apricots and other edible plants. The scientists exploring it since 2007 have also reported evidence of an ancient winemaking operation, and caches of what may be the oldest known intentionally dried fruits.