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300-year-old well-preserved ‘lucky’ shoe found in Cambridge University wall

world Updated: Aug 21, 2016 17:19 IST
Cambridge University

A 300-year-old shoe has been found in the wall of a room in St. John’s College at Britain’s University of Cambridge that was likely put there to bring luck and ward off evil spirits.(St. John’s College website)

A 300-year-old remarkably well-preserved shoe has been found in the wall of a University of Cambridge building in the United Kingdom that was likely put there to bring luck and ward off evil spirits.

The venerable footwear was uncovered by maintenance staff of the St John’s College while they were removing panels to install electrical cables in a common room for senior academics.

The building was originally the residence of the Master of the College.

It was built between 1598 and 1602, but it is thought that the shoe was put behind the panels during changes to its interior, between the end of the 17th Century, and mid-way through the 18th, the university said in a statement.

Shoes are sometimes found within the walls of old buildings because, in more superstitious times, they were thought to protect the inhabitants and prevent malicious forces from entering.

The discovery of the left shoe of a man, measuring over nine and a half inches (about a size 6 by modern standards) has been referred to the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, who have taken photographs and are consulting a specialist in the hope of establishing a precise date.

Richard Newman, from the Archaeological Unit, described it as a “classic example” of what researchers call “apotropaic” magic, popular magic designed to bring luck and turn away evil influences.

“It was positioned between the chimney breast and the window, which is exactly the sort of location where you would expect to find a shoe being used in this way,” Newman added.

“Given its location, it is very likely that it was there to play a protective role for the Master of the College. It may even have been one of his old shoes,” he said.

Popular magic of this type was fairly widespread in England from the 16th to mid-19th Centuries, especially in East Anglia, according to the statement.

Although shoes were the most common item of choice for keeping spirits at bay, they were far from the only object embedded in walls for this purpose.

More gruesome objects, including dead cats, horses’ skulls, and “witch bottles”, which contained substances such as hair and urine, have also been found, the statement said.

They were hidden in walls, roofs and beneath floors to prevent malevolent forces from bringing bad luck to the building, or its occupants.

Why shoes were such a popular choice is not properly understood. One theory is that they were believed to be an effective “spirit trap”.

Perhaps more plausibly, some historians argue that, at least in the days before mass-production of leather shoes, they took on something of the shape of the wearer’s foot.

As such, they may have been believed to possess the “spirit” of the owner, while also representing the boundary with unseen forces that surrounded them as they walked.