Why a 300-year-old shoe was hidden behind a wall at the University of Cambridge

An image of a 300-year-old shoe found at the University of Cambridge. (Cambridge Archaeological Unit).

A maintenance crew at St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, England, made a “sole” discovery when they uncovered a shoe inside a wall believed to be about 300 years old.

The well-worn, but well-preserved left shoe — roughly a modern-day men’s size 6 — is what historians called a classic example of “apotropaic” magic, popular magic designed to bring luck and turn away evil.

“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,” Richard Newman, from Cambridge’s Archaeological Unit said in a statement. “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.”

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The footwear was discovered Aug. 1 by maintenance staff as they were removing panels to install electrical cables in the Senior Combination Room, a common room for senior academics, located in the college’s Tudor-era Second Court, according to a statement from the college.

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The building was originally built between 1598 and 1602, but experts believe that the shoe was put behind the panels during renovations between the end of the 17th century and midway through the 18th century.

Shoes were thought to protect residents and prevent evil spirits from entering homes. They were usually placed next to doors, windows and, in this case, by a fireplace.  This practice was popular throughout Europe from the 16th century to the 19th century.

READ MORE: Richard III completes remarkable journey from parking lot to cathedral

Other more macabre items used to keep spirits away, included dead cats, horses’ skulls, and “witch bottles,” which contained things like hair and urine, according to researchers.

“There is not a lot of documentary evidence about people’s beliefs in ritual magic in the past, and often the sources that we have are very negative and disparaging about such practices,” Newman said. “These discoveries are important because they give us a material record of what people may have believed at the time.”

Cambridge University said the shoe will be placed back in the wall after work on St. John’s College is finished and will be accompanied by a 21st-century “time capsule,” featuring a newspaper and coins, in case it is rediscovered by future generations.

Ancient artifacts have a way of making headlines in the U.K. and abroad.

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Last year, the 500-year journey of King Richard III finally came to an end after his skeleton was discovered in 2012 under a parking lot in Leicester.

Thousands turned out to view his coffin ahead of a public burial service which was broadcast on live television.

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