Coastal heritage


Coastal Heritage

Intertidal Archæology

Animal, bird and human footprints in Holocene sediments at Formby Point, Northwest England.

Gordon Roberts
Sefton Coast Partnership: Archæology and History Task Group

Coastal erosion has revealed the sub;fossil footprints of humans (adult and child), animals (aurochs, cattle, red deer, roe deer, unshod horse, dog / wolf, wild boar, sheep / goat) and wading birds (crane, oystercatcher and rail) preserved in late-Holocene, laminated silt exposures at Formby Point, Sefton Coast, Northwest England.

Most of the footprints are located in the intertidal zone. Stratigraphic evidence, supported by Carbon-14 and Optically- Stimulated Luminescence dating, indicates that they are late- Mesolithic to mid-Neolithic in origin. However, a higher, dune- edge peat stratum contains the imprints of Iron Age domestic oxen.

Human footprint trail
10 metre long human footprint trail.  Adult male, approx 1,66m tall, walking at 3,7 kph

Since 1989 a private, selective archive of over three thousand photographs and other data relating to the palæoenvironment of Formby Point has been established. Numerous plaster casts have also been made. Over 200 human footprint trails have been recorded. In 1995, a statistical analysis of 75 well-defined trails suggested a mean, adult, male height of 1.66mand a mean, adult, female height of 1.45m. Gait analyses would seem to indicate the presence of young women and children, mainly occupied in gathering food (e.g. shrimps, razor shells and other sea food). Male footprints are sometimes directly associated with red and roe deer tracks. Evidence of an increased speed over the norm for the (then) soft, muddy environment would suggest hunting or animal management of some kind. Evidence of abnormalities / deformities of the foot are sometimes revealed.

Sub-fossil footprint exposures in an open, unprotected environment are rare. However, other known locations of comparable human and animal imprints in Holocene, intertidal environments include the Severn Estuary, South Walney Island and Jersey (Channel Islands) in the United Kingdom, the Canche Estuary in northern France, and the Pampean Coast of Argentina.

However, in the context of a time frame extending back some 3.75 million years within a variety of environments, and given the considerable number of archæological and palæontological investigations that take place worldwide, it is remarkable that, to date, only 63 sites have ever revealed hominid footprints.

And of these locations, Formby Point has yielded the greatest number of prehistoric, human footprint trails.

Human footprint detail
Foot detail of adolescent / young adult male, approx. 1,4m. tall, walking at 4,9 kph.  Note the pointed toe outline caused by drag of long, uncut toenails!

The purpose of the Web Page is also to alert archæologists to the possibility that sea-level changes may be uncovering elsewhere similar, foreshore and intertidal sediment outcrops which tend to pass unnoticed. Once exposed, such strata are immediately subjected to the destructive forces of the tides and longshore currents and any palaeoenvironmental and archaeological evidence they may contain is lost for ever.

The following texts are extracts from "Ephemeral Archaeology", BBC Radio 4 "Science Now" series, 6 November 1993. Presenter Alan Lewis. Participants: Professor Michael Day, Professor Geoffrey Wainwright Gordon Roberts.

Ephemeral, intertidal archaeology.

"Footprints provide two basic sorts of information. One, they tell you about the individual who made the footprint, but they also tell you about the environment. The first thing you have to realize is that there is absolutely no doubt that the footprint is contemporary with the surface on which it was made. That is very rarely true of fossils which you find. They are in deposits. You have no idea how they relate to others, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years different in age, with only a matter of a few inches or a few feet in the deposits". (Professor Michael Day, Palaeontology Department, Natural History Museum, London.)

First recorded human footprint trail (1 Oct 1990) disappearing under later-deposited strata of sediment.

"The intertidal zone, because of its nature and because of the fact that it is in an inundated landscape, can give us a great amount of information about the past environment of the last six thousand years, and this gives us a picture of human settlement which, ironically, gives us a more complete picture of Man and his lifestyle and his environment than we get from the dry, terrestrial sites. It is a very important environment for us to study and, indeed, a very neglected environment. It is also very difficult to put a human face on archaeological evidence, and with these footprints you have actually the mark of the people concerned, and that is what makes them so important".

Professor Geoffrey Wainwright, English Heritage.