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story.lead_photo.caption University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology associate curator Candace Sall discusses Arnold Research Cave finds. Photo by Contributed photo

One of the oldest shoes ever found came from Callaway County.

The 8,000-year-old shoe is just one artifact out of dozens discovered over the decades at Arnold Research Cave.

Thursday evening, the Missouri State Archives held a virtual presentation with University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology associate curator Candace Sall.

Articles in the Kingdom of Callaway Historical Society, such as a history published in 1884, indicate that Arnold Research Cave has long been a source of local interest.

The cave is on private property, but landowners invited archaeologists to excavate the cave, initially from 1955-1958 and again in 1979 and 1981.

"We really thank the family for that opportunity and for allowing this to be studied by researchers," Sall said.

What researchers found was remarkable — while archaeologists frequently find stones, bones and pottery, the unique circumstances in Arnold Research Cave ensured that even perishable artifacts like shoes, baskets and fishing nets were preserved.

"We're from the cave state, so we all know about caves — they're wet and they're damp and you see stalactites and stalagmites — this one is not like that," Sall said. "This one is sandstone and it's dry. There's no water inside. When you walk in, you can just feel the dryness."

Though the inside of the cave is dry, there are water sources nearby the cave, making it an attractive spot to spend the night.

Over the centuries, those inhabitants left behind stone tools, dozens of sandals made of rattlesnake master, two deer-skin shoes, twined fabric, a net, cordage, bone hairpins, a shell pendant, an atlatl dart foreshaft with an attached stone point, another foreshaft painted red and woven bags.

"Usually we're talking about holders that are clay because the pottery lasts, but to have these different perishable ones and to see the different styles we can see what we might be missing," Sall said. "How many other things and other sites are we not seeing — bags or wooden artifacts that we're not seeing because they rotted away. To be able to see these and get a snapshot in time is really amazing."

One small deer-skin shoe likely belonged to a child. No matching pair of shoes has been found. Many of the shoes had holes in the heel, indicating they might have been thrown out once they became too worn.

Radiocarbon dating was invented in the 1940s, but early methods required large samples. The Arnold Research Cave shoes were deemed too rare to give up any large chunks. With the invention of accelerator mass spectrometry dating, items could be dated using smaller samples.

Eight of the shoes were tested — one is about 4,400 years old. Another of the shoes is currently the world's second-oldest shoe at over 8,000 years old.

After the presentation, Sall answered audience questions about the finds and about archaeology in general.

"When you dig an archeological site and you do anything, you destroy it," Sall said. "You're taking everything out of context and you can never put it back."

Nowadays, many archaeologists don't even dig — using technology, it's possible to scan and see what's in the ground without destroying anything.

If someone finds artifacts on their own land, they are allowed to examine or remove it. Sall recommended taking notes to record where any artifact is found. The Missouri Archaeological Society helps identify finds and landowners can also follow the example of Arnold Research Cave and arrange for an emergency excavation.

"If you're at the state park and you find something, call a ranger — they have archaeologists and they will record it," Sall said. "Don't take it home with you because if everybody took a little piece of the history home, then we would lose that information."

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