American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Note on Ancient Crampons

  • Notes
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1934

A Note on Ancient Crampons

Simler, in his De Alpibus Commentarius (1574), says “people are accustomed to tie iron shoes, like those of horses, and furnished with three sharp prongs, securely to their feet, so that they may get firm foothold on the ice; others furnish the thongs, by which the sandals are tied under the foot, in the same way, with a very sharp iron spike, and employ other means in order to resist the slipperiness of the ice and to improve their footing.”

Climbing-irons are represented pictorially for the first time in Theuerdank (1517), descriptive of the adventures of Maximilian I, being of sandal form attached by two straps across the foot. The prongs, four in number, are arranged as if on the corners of an oblong, two under the anterior arch of the foot and two beneath the heel. In some of the pictures no binding is shown, as if the spikes were attached directly to the shoe. In the chamois-hunting plate of Weisskunig, the four-pronged sandal is attached by a single strap over the arch of the foot.

Several unusual climbing-irons are shown in the Historia de gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555) by Olaus Magnus, the plate being produced in Grand-Carteret’s La Montagne à travers Les Ages (1902, i, 98).

A primitive four-pronged crampon, in one piece, with a ring on each side for attachment, is shown by Scheuchzer in his Itinera Alpina (1708), while a “Sandal with Cramp Irons,” the prongs restricted to the heel, but with elaborate lateral supporting bars and binding, occurs in Saussure’s Voyages (1779-96), and is reprinted in An Atlas to Ebel’s Traveller’s Guide as late as 1819. In Pieth and Hager‘s Placidus a Speseha (1913), there is a reproduction of a small three-pronged heel-iron dating from the early part of the nineteenth century.

Until recently, archaeologists have believed that the ancestral type of these irons was represented by certain objects associated with burials of the Hallstatt culture (700-400 B. C.) in Salzburg and Carinthia, it being assumed that foot-irons were used by Celtic miners.

One of these, from E. von Sacken’s Das Grabfeld von Hallstatt (1868), is reproduced in A. Steinitzer’s translation of Simler’s work for the Gesellschaft Alpiner Bücherfreunde (1931). Its construction is simple: a horizontal bar, with three equally spaced conical points, and two short lateral uprights, the extremities of which are broadened and pierced for attachment. (Fig. 1.)

According to Lord Conway (A.J, 32, p. 455), “Other examples of not much later date [than the Hallstatt specimens] were found at Karlstein, near Reichenhall, and at Ottmanach in Carin- thia. Crampons were also used by the Gauls in Roman days, and several examples which were found at Mont Beauvray (Bibracte) are to be seen in the Musée Saint-Germain-en-Laye. . . . Crampons were probably a Celtic invention and carried to Gaul by Celtic immigrants.”

Recently, in New York, the collection of prehistoric antiquities, excavated by the late Duchess Paul Friedrich of Mecklenburg, was dispersed, affording opportunity for examining an iron of somewhat different pattern.

Occurring as a pair, the objects are from a tumulus at Mag dalenaberg, near St. Marein in Carniola, where they were associated with horsemen’s equipment, and are, therefore, described not as climbing-irons but as spurs. The metal is bronze.

The horizontal portion of the bar is equipped with three pairs of truncated-conical prongs, the tips of which show no signs of wear. The curved lateral supports are perforated at the tips.

(Fig. 2.)

Neither type cited would be easy to attach firmly to the foot; they are much too wide and would be as awkward to walk on as to strike a horse with.

Mr. Eaton Cromwell, who examined the specimens in New York, states: “I am quite at a loss to imagine their probableuse. The apparent lack of wear would seem to preclude their use as crampons—they would probably have been too expensive as well, for a purpose for which wooden cleats would have been equally useful and serviceable. Yet they must have been meant to serve some useful purpose, as they do not seem very ornamental. They are equipped with holes to be fastened with, but to what object? I believe they must be primitive stirrups, the more so as they are found in conjunction with horse-trappings.” This, however, controverts the statement of the Encyclopedia Britannica that the earliest evidence of the use of stirrups in Europe is to be found in the Art of War of Emperor Maurice (A. D. 582-602). At least, this recent information does not add to the authenticity of supposed Iron Age crampons.

J. M. T.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.