Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Evolution of the Horseshoe: Nail Holes of Antiquity

Would anyone care to comment on these 12th century horseshoes from the Museum of London? Yes, that's right: 12th century. That means these shoes were hammered out not long after the Battle of Hastings (1066) when the Normans beat the local Brits.

I have a terrific little booklet call "Old Horseshoes" by Ivan G. Sparkes, and it creates a timeline of horseshoe shapes and details, but it certainly doesn't have any nail holes like these shoes have, although he does reference wavy-rimmed shoes to the Saxon period of British history. (Horseshoes are mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.)

According to Sparkes, there is evidence that horseshoes were not deviced to protect horses' hooves, as is so often put forward. He claims that the nails were like keys, and were only nailed halfway into the hoof, in order to provide traction; the heel calks were built up to the same height as the protruding nail heads.

What you see in these nail holes is, of course, a spent hole that looks like it was made by a t-shaped punch, but an argument could be made for a t-shaped nail head wearing down into the soft iron of the shoe. If Sparkes' theory holds, the shoe would last much longer than the nails and go through a sequence of nails as they wore down.

If a modern design nail sat in that hole, you'd end up with a semi-fullered (creased) shoe. Various historical references quoted by Sparkes place the introduction of fullering in the mid-16th or 17th century.

Photo courtesy Museum of London.