Object: Roman Horseshoe

Roman horseshoe

Figure 1    Roman Iron Horseshoe from the Classics Collection of the Sam Noble Museum

Iron Horse-shoe or Mule-shoe with 2 Nails
Germany: Taunus Mountains, Limes Region
Possibly first to sixth century AD
Materials: Iron

Numerous cultures around the world have used horseshoes to prevent their horse’s hooves from splitting. There is debate, however, as to whether or not the Romans used nailed horseshoes or other hoof coverings. A few scholars have argued that several horseshoes can be dated to the Iron Age Roman world.  One such horseshoe was found in England at the Sheepen Farm site of Camulodunum. The latest date for this horseshoe could be A.D. 60, though it was likely used much earlier. The Sheepen horseshoe is almost exactly the same shape, size, and weight as the horseshoe at the Sam Noble Museum. One of the only differences is that the shoe from England has a caulkin, a bent piece of metal at the end of the horseshoe. Caulkin were used to give the horse traction on slippery terrain.

To create a horseshoe during the Iron Age, a standard sized bar of iron was used that measures from .5 to .75 of an inch wide (1.3 to 1.9 cm) and .25 of an inch (.6 cm) thick.  The Sam Noble horseshoe is .25 of an inch (.6 cm) thick, fitting the description perfectly.  The bar of the shoe is bent around until the two sides are parallel, making the characteristic horseshoe shape. The Iron Age horseshoe also has caulkin, although there is no set type of caulkin shape in these shoes.  Each side of the horseshoe has three nail holes, which can also be seen on the Sam Noble example.

The type of nail found in Iron Age horseshoes, and which are seen in the Sam Noble horseshoe, are fiddle-key nails. Fiddle-key nails have oval heads flattened on each side and a shank that joins with the long side of the oval head.  The shank ranges from 1 in to 1.5 inches (2.54 to 3.8 cm) long. The area closest to the sharp point is flattened.  The oval head of the nail is so large that it cannot rest flat against the horseshoe and so projects beyond the surface of the shoe.  The nail projection gave the horse better traction. The nails stuck out farther than the caulkin, indicating the caulkin may not have been in contact with the ground unless the terrain was extremely uneven or soft. The Sam Noble horseshoe does not have caulkin, so the nails were the only device for traction.

Iron Age horseshoes have been found from Britain to France, Germany, and Switzerland. Roman military horses were likely fitted with horseshoes by soldiers recruited for work in the Roman cavalry. These men, who had used horseshoes at home, likely continued using their horseshoes in the Roman military. The Roman auxiliary army used war horses in their cavalry.  Since the Sam Noble horseshoe was in the same collection with the auxiliary’s spearheads, it is possible this horseshoe was used by the Roman cavalry. Many Germans were in the cavalry since they were thought to be excellent riders.  The forts along the limes Germanicus needed an area to house their war horses and equipment. In addition to war horses, every garrison, cavalry and infantry, had hundreds of pack animals such as mules and oxen to transport their goods. So the cavalry also needed a way to outfit the hundreds of horses and other pack animals needed for war and transport.

Take a look at the brief video below to see a modern recreation of Roman cavalry horses decked out with traditional equipment:

Roman cavalry horses:

[Chelsea Cinotto]

Works Cited

Johnson, Anne

            1983 Roman Forts of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD in Britain and the German Provinces. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Simpson, Grace

            2000 Roman Weapons, Tools, Bronze Equipment and Brooches from Neuss – Novaesium Excavations 1955-1972. BAR International Series 862.        

            England: Biddles Ltd.

Ward, Gordon

            2011 (1941) The Iron Age Horseshoe and its Derivatives. Read Books.

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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