As you make your way north on St. George Street in downtown Toronto towards the similarly named subway station, you may notice a building shaped like a shoebox. The Bata Shoe Museum is dedicated to the cultural and creative uses of shoes throughout the world: from heels and seal fur boots to astronaut footwear. Their collection also includes sandals from ancient Egypt. The Nile Scribes visited the museum and explored their special exhibit The Gold Standard: Glittering Footwear from around the World.
History of the Bata Shoe Museum
The story of the museum began with its founder, Sonja Bata. Married to Thomas Bata, who immigrated from the Czech Republic to Canada and came from a shoemaking family, she began collecting shoes in the 1940s. Sonja Bata’s collection grew along with her travels around the world, where she would acquire local styles. After many years, her private collection grew large enough to prompt the creation of the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation in 1979. The foundation sponsored research trips to far-away places to study the different styles of footwear among local populations. Finally, on May 6, 1995, the doors opened to a dedicated space known as the the Bata Shoe Museum. Today, visitors can marvel at more than 13,000 artefacts spanning over 4,500 years of footwear history in exhibits displayed across three floors.
Ancient Egypt and the Gold Standard
The special exhibit’s theme took a look at the many golden shoes in the museum’s collection and explored their meanings and significance around the globe. The sole Egyptian object featured in the exhibit was a mummy case made of cartonnage (a material made from plastered papyrus and/or linen). It consisted only of two pieces: a gilded head and a case to fit around the feet.
The head shows the face of the deceased wearing an elaborate wig and a beard – its idealised elements do not reveal the person’s identity. These types of gilded cartonnage cases were an innovation of the Late Period (722-332 BC). When we look at the second part of the case, designed to house the feet of the mummy, two golden sandals are attached to the bottom. The soles of these sandals show depictions of two bound foreigners: a Nubian (right) and an Asiatic (left). The reason behind this placement is that in the afterlife the deceased could then trample on these traditional enemies of Egypt who were representative of all the northern and southern peoples.
This motif is not new, but originated in the royal ideology of the New Kingdom (1,539-1,077 BC). We find this motif, for example, on the famous sandals of Tutankhamun that show in stunning detail the subjugation the Egyptians expected of their foreign neighbours. During the Late Period, private individuals adopted this royal iconography for themselves. In a similar example, the bottom of a mummy case shows in vivid colour just how the elbows of an Asiatic and Nubian were tied together to ensure their symbolic defeat:
The exhibit focussed on the colour gold, a material that had special importance in Egyptian culture and religion. Egypt contains many gold mines even today, but the majority of their gold came from their southern neighbour: Nubia (modern Sudan). The modern name of Nubia, first used in the Roman Period, may in fact be related to the ancient Egyptian word for gold (nebu). Gold’s brilliance and permanence gave it solar associations and the Egyptians believed the flesh of the gods was made of this previous metal. Looking ahead, we will find gold used for the strap in a painted sandal.
Egyptian Footwear in the Permanent Gallery
After we visited the special exhibit, we then made our way to the permanent galleries: All About Shoes: Footwear Through the Ages. Objects from a vast array of cultures highlight the long history of footwear and shoemaking around the world over the last 4,500 years. Starting in antiquity, the displays contain a replica of the shoe that belonged to the famed Oetzi the Iceman. The first Egyptian object on display here is another cartonnage foot of a mummy case. Dating to Ptolemaic (332-30 BC) times, it has bands of decoration around the central motif of two feet. These are shown bare with a decorated strap of a sandal going between the big toes.
What the sole of such a sandal looked like is shown in another object to its right. There, well-preserved sandals made of basketry take on the shape that we have seen already above in the Roman mummy case. These sandals are simple and decorated, as well as missing their straps . These would have been attached in ancient times on the sides. We do not know much about their find spot, though they date to Ptolemaic times as well.
The two examples already described were made for funerary purposes, meaning the deceased took them with him/her into the afterlife for eternal use. The sandals, however, reflect what Egyptians actually wore in their daily life. We only need to think about the popularity of flip-flops exploding in the summer time to be able to relate – sandals must have been very common then, too.
In addition to these two objects is another fragmented mummy case worn by the deceased on their feet. The individual’s skin color was painted with a pale color and the golden sandal straps seem to connect to an anklet above. While the front is damaged, it bears similar geometric designs as the first one. Here, the golden strap was tied in a knot in the middle of the foot. It’s a beautiful detail that may reflect the style of footwear, showing that the deceased entered the afterlife well dressed.
With an entire focus on footwear, the Bata Shoe Museum traces well the history of global footwear through its collection. We were happy to see some Egyptian objects within its collection as well as the gilded cartonnage case that was highlighted as part of the special exhibit. The Gold Standard will be on display throughout 2018.
- J. Malek. 2003. 4000 Years of Art. London: Phaedon.
- More detail is available on the Museo Egizio website – LINK.
All photos were taken by the Nile Scribes unless otherwise indicated.