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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
American Journal of Archaeology
Vol. 6, No. 4 (Oct.‑Dec. 1902), pp398‑403.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p398  Etruscan Horseshoes from Corneto​a

The plate which accompanies this article (Plate XIV) is a reproduction of a photograph of four bronze horseshoes found at Corneto, in ancient Etruria. These horseshoes were procured for the Free Museum of Science and Art of the University of Pennsylvania by Professor A. L. Frothingham, of Princeton, in 1897, and are now in the Museum in Philadelphia.​1 They were found in an Etruscan tomb dating probably from the fourth century B.C., and so far as the writer knows are the only ancient horseshoes in existence. With them was found part of the jaw of a horse with several teeth in it, and a deep, red-figured patera. The teeth are those of a horse about twelve years old. The patera, which is of Lower Italian ware dating from the fourth century, has on the inside an archaic Medusa head in red on a black background, and on the outside a wreath of black ivy leaves on a red ground.

[image ALT: Four horseshoes, described at length in the text on this webpage.]
Etruscan Horseshoes from Corneto

The horseshoes, which are semicircular in shape, are of bronze, and covered a little more than half the foot. Their dimensions are as follows: Nos. 1 and 2, shown in the upper half of the plate, are each 0.125 m broad, and their height when standing on their two ends is in each case 0.097 m. These were presumably the shoes of the two front feet of the horse. The shoes shown in the lower half of the plate are a  p399 little smaller. No. 3 (to the left) is 0.120 m broad, and No. 4 (to the right), 0.121 m. Their height, when measured as above, is in each case 0.093 m. These seem to have been the shoes of the hind feet. The thickness of all the shoes is 0.004 m.

The outer surface, which rested on the ground, has prongs projecting from it, as shown in the two upper figures of the plate; while the inner surface is smooth. The prongs vary in number in the different shoes. Shoe No. 1 has 21 prongs; Nos. 2 and 3 have each 22; No. 4 has 19. Furthermore the prongs vary in length from 6 to 9.5 mm.

Each shoe has three holes for attaching it to the foot, — one round hole, 0.022 m in diameter, in the middle of the shoe near the front, and two square holes, 0.01 m square, at the ends. In three of the shoes the round hole is stopped up with a bunch of oxidized iron from the nail or rivet used to fasten on the shoe. In shoe No. 1 the oxidized part is about 6 cm in diameter on the inner side, while on the outer side part of what looks like a nail may be seen projecting. The square holes show no trace of iron or other metal fastenings, and were presumably intended for straps. Each shoe has also a spike-like projection running toward the middle of the hoof, probably serving the useful purpose of protecting the inner part of the foot from loose stones.

The finding of these horseshoes at once excites speculation as to the extent to which horseshoes of metal were known to the Greeks and Romans. Were they in common use, and if so, at what period were they introduced? Hitherto it has been assumed that metal horseshoes were unknown to the ancient world.​2 References are found to shoes, or rather coverings of leather, felt, or coarse cloth, used on rough ground, but these were not intended for permanent use. We know that the Romans used for mules a sort of leather sock, strengthened underneath by a plate of iron (Catullus, 17.26). It might be supposed that what was true of mules would also be true of horses; but there is no reference in literature which can  p400 be cited to prove this. No other kind of horseshoe, in which metal was used, is mentioned by an ancient writer.3

The question now arises as to whether the horseshoes in Philadelphia are to be connected with the muleshoe mentioned by Catullus or are to be regarded as something entirely different, and this involves the practical question of how these shoes were attached to the hoof. The oxidized lumps of iron in three of the shoes prove that an iron fastening passed through the round hole in each shoe. The lack of any trace of iron in the square holes, together with the fact that they are square, not round, makes it very probable that they were for the use of straps. A shoe of this character with such fastenings could be attached in one of two ways. (1) It might be attached to a plate of iron by a rivet, the iron being clamped around the edge of the hoof in front and perhaps at the sides, thus preventing the shoe from slipping back. Then straps might run from the two rear ends of the shoe around the ankle, crossing in front and being tied behind. This would keep the shoe from slipping forward. The clamp and the straps, then, together would hold the shoe firmly in place. (2) The bronze shoe might be attached to a low boot of leather, which might or might not have an iron plate as the sole. In this case the part of the boot in front of the hoof would prevent the slipping back of the shoe, and the straps below and behind would keep the shoe on and firmly in place. It seems likely that the horseshoes in Philadelphia were attached in this second way. These shoes then would resemble the muleshoes of Catullus, which could thus be shown to be Etruscan in origin.

Such a shoe as this is not very far removed from the horseshoe in use in Greece to‑day. The modern Greek peasant takes a thin plate of iron large enough to cover the bottom of the foot of his horse or his donkey and nails it on with large-headed nails. These nails give the horse a foothold and prevent him from slipping. Such a shoe as this, if it existed in  p401 antiquity, would long since have disappeared through oxidization, so that it is hardly fair to say that horseshoes could not have been known to the ancient Greeks, at least in late Greek times. The fact that Xenophon makes no mention of such shoes would, however, seem to be conclusive for the earlier period.

The discovery of these bronze shoes at Corneto at least proves that horseshoes with a metal sole were known to the ancient Etruscans. Whether they were in common use or not is another question. If they were common and of bronze, it is certainly surprising that other specimens have not been found. If, however, they were of iron, their disappearance could be easily understood. But the prongs upon the shoes from Corneto must have been intended to give the horse a firm hold with his toe and so prevent slipping. It seems likely therefore that they were intended for use on ice or in a very hilly country. In either case their use would probably be the exception, not the rule.

The horse played an important part in the life of the ancient Etruscans, as numerous wall-paintings in Etruscan tombs testify. As part of the funeral ceremony he was frequently sacrificed at his master's grave and sometimes buried with him. Several instances are recorded of the finding in tombs in different parts of Etruria of the bones of a horse beside those of a man.​4 The horseshoes in Philadelphia, therefore, must be regarded as those of a favorite horse slain at his master's grave. The excellent condition of the shoes proves that they were new, and were doubtless provided for the occasion, so that the horse might be well equipped to accompany his master to the other world.

So far in this paper it has been assumed that there could be no doubt as to the identification of the bronzes from Corneto as horseshoes. When the writer first studied them, the idea occurred to him that they might perhaps be bit-guards, after  p402 the fashion of those illustrated by Gozzadini in his Mors de cheval italiques, pl. II. But he soon felt satisfied that they were certainly horseshoes, and this opinion was confirmed by Dr. Pearson. Four reasons might be given to prove that they were not bit-guards. (1) They are too large for that purpose. (2) If they were so used, the prongs would necessarily be on the outside, and it is hard to see what would be the object in having them. (3) It would be necessary to have a bar or knob on each end of the bit to keep the guards from slipping off, but the prongs would interfere with such a bar or knob. (4) If to prevent this the bit and guards were fastened together so as to make one firm piece, we should expect the bit and guards to be of the same material; whereas the metal which passed through the middle hole of these bronzes was iron. For these reasons it seems extremely improbable that these bronzes from Corneto can have formed any part of the bit. On the other hand, they bear so close a resemblance to horseshoes both in size and shape that it is only reasonable to conclude that they were used for that purpose.

Corneto, or to be more exact, Tarquinii, the place where these bronzes were found, was one of the twelve chief cities of ancient Etruria and a very important place. Strictly speaking, the modern Corneto is about two miles from the ancient Tarquinii, which has long since ceased to exist.​5 The ancient cemetery lies between the two sites. It was discovered in 1823, since which time it has yielded thousands of vases as well as bronzes and other objects of archaeological interest. Its painted tombs have been famous for years.6

So far as the writer has been able to discover, no bronzes in any way resembling these horseshoes from Corneto have been found anywhere.​7 Future excavations may bring to light  p403 others, but at present these unique specimens in Philadelphia must remain interesting reminders of how uncertain our knowledge is concerning many of the details of ancient life.

For convenience in reference, the following table is appended giving the dimensions of the horseshoes.

Breadth. Height. Thickness. Round Hole. Square Hole. Number
of Prongs.
No. 1 0.125 m 0.097 m 0.004 m [0.022 m] 0.01 m 21
No. 2 0.125 m 0.097 m 0.004 m [0.022 m] 0.01 m 22
No. 3 0.120 m 0.093 m 0.004 m 0.022 m 0.01 m 22
No. 4 0.121 m 0.093 m 0.004 m [0.022 m] 0.01 m 19

Prongs 0.006 the 0.0095 m high. Oxidized part on No. 1 0.06 m in diameter.

William Nickerson Bates.

The Author's Notes:

1 The writer desires to express his thanks to the Curator, Mrs. Cornelius Stevenson, for permission to publish the horseshoes, and likewise to Professor Leonard Pearson, Dean of the Department of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, for several valuable suggestions adopted in the paper.

2 E.g. Baumeister, Denkmäler, p1432.

Thayer's Note: Alexander's army seems not to have had them, for example (Diodorus, XVII.94.2); but for the Romans and Etruscans. see below.

3 See M. H. Morgan, Xenophon's Art of Horsemanship, pp121 f., and the references there cited.

4 See Dennis, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria, third ed., vol. I, pp276, 432, note 5, and 456. This explains why horse's bits of bronze are sometimes found in Etruscan tombs. The Museum in Philadelphia has three such bits.

Thayer's Note: The edition of Dennis online is not the same one as the "3d edition" referred to in this article; and there are four, not three, mentions of the subject in it:

Vol. I, p391, note 15; p418 (and notes 42 and 43); p447; Vol. II, p24.

5 It was finally destroyed by the Cornetans in 1307. See Dennis, op. cit. vol. I, p424 and note 4.

6 Dennis, op. cit. vol. I, pp301‑429.

7 A report reached me that there were some similar bronzes in a private collection in Perugia; but Professor Bellucci, the owner of the collection, informs me that neither in his own nor in any other collection in Perugia are there any objects resembling these. He adds that he is ready to believe that they are horseshoes.

Thayer's Note:

a Though not Etruscan, Roman horse-shoes, or things like them, are taken for granted by George Witts in his reports on 19c excavations in Gloucestershire (Haresfield Camp, Chedworth Villa); and in 1911, John Ward writes of "horse-shoes and a hippo-sandal" at Silchester, which he then goes on to describe at some length (p202). A pity there's no drawing, but he does give further references.

It really is odd that so simple an item, and by modern lights so necessary, should be so rarely mentioned in the sources or shown on ancient monuments. The question has been repeatedly addressed in the journals (and the paper you are now reading has at least once been expressly rebutted: Classical Journal 29:691, note 1). It has also been discussed in some detail on certain bulletin boards online, but the URLs keep on changing — quite needlessly — so I'll leave it to you to track them down.

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Page updated: 16 Sep 21