July 10, 2005

Creator Touts Replicas of Ancient Shoes

ZLIN, Czech Republic -- Lined with hay and held together by a net of rough string, the 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.

It's like going barefoot, "only better," he said. "In the Oetzi shoes, you feel something like freedom, flexibility."

Scientists have already learned much from the hunter nicknamed Oetzi (rhymes with curtsey) - that his last meal included venison, that he was killed by an arrow, and that he probably spent most of his life within about 50 miles of where his body was found.

And when it comes to recreating his shoes, there's something symbolic about the challenge being taken up at the university whose founder's name, Bata, has been made famous by his worldwide footwear empire.

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 in an interview in his university workshop.

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. Gresak tested vegetable fats with no success. Fats from marrow also failed.

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. After two years of bureaucratic wrangling, 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 2001 and 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 in a telephone interview that the shoes "were a pleasant surprise."

Patek, who owns a firm that makes mountaineering shoes for extreme terrain, has climbed all of Europe's tallest mountains. "I dare say I would manage to climb them all in the Oetzi shoes," he said.

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. Stepping into water while wearing Oetzi shoes will make your feet soaking wet, although the discomfort soon passes.

"It gets cold very quickly, but after one or two steps, the air between the shoe and the foot heats up," Hlavacek said. "You feel something humid, but warm."

Today, Hlavacek is still learning lessons from his experiment. An expert on shoes for diabetics, he is researching what materials could distribute pressure as superbly as the hay in the Oetzi shoes.

He hates plastic footwear, says most shoes are poorly shaped and is certain that future historians will view high heels as evidence of the modern era's stupidity.

But he doesn't wear Oetzi shoes and doesn't expect them to catch on with the public. They're difficult to put on, and the hay needs regular replacement.

Then there's the problem that no shoe technologist can solve.

"Try going with these shoes to the train station," Hlavacek said. "The main problem is connected with fashion."


Associated Press writer Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.