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Intertidal Holocene Footprints and Their Archaeological Significance

By Roberts, Gordon; Gonzalez, Silvia et al. | Antiquity, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Intertidal Holocene Footprints and Their Archaeological Significance


Roberts, Gordon, Gonzalez, Silvia, Huddart, David, Antiquity


The Holocene mud-flats of Formby Point, at the mouth of the Mersey estuary in northwest England, have long provided information about their palaeoenvironment. Now they yield a more direct evidence - in the form of preserved footprints - of the people and animals that frequented the foreshore.

We report the occurrence of human (adult and children) and animal (aurochs, red deer, roe deer, unshod horse, crane) footprints preserved in Late Holocene silts and sands on Formby Point, UK, an area associated with sea level changes. The footprints are located in the beach intertidal zone and the stratigraphic evidence indicates a Neolithic/Bronze Age date for the footprints. To date, 145 human footprint trails have been recorded; preliminary calculations, based on 75 trails, suggest a mean adult male height of 1.66 m and a mean adult female height of 1.45 m. Other known locations of human and animal prints in Holocene intertidal environments include the Severn Estuary and Jersey (Channel Islands) in the UK and the Pampean Coast of Argentina.

Formby Point is located on the Irish Sea coast of northwest England [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]; over the last 150 years many researchers have documented its important environmental changes during the Holocene Epoch, from stratigraphic, sedimentological and palaeoecological data (Reade 1871; Wray & Cope 1948; Gresswell 1953; Tooley 1978; Huddart 1992; Neal 1993; Pye & Neal 1994). None of these authors have reported human or animal imprints in the silts, neither axe there archaeological findings (Cowell 1991). A succession of Holocene silts and sands became exposed during the 1970s (Parker 1975) as a result of accelerated erosion of the beach. The first mention of 'Iron Age' cattle footprints was made by Tooley (1970) where they were found in a sediment layer immediately below a woody detrital peat dated at 2334 [+ or -] 120 years b.p. (Hv 4709).

During the 1980s, further imprint-bearing sediments were exposed. A systematic investigation was started by Roberts in 1989 (Cowell et al. 1993), involving photography of the footprints, recording their position, and lifting or making casts of selected specimens. These footprint-bearing sediments appear discontinuously over a distance of c. 4 km (centred on GR SD2606) in the intertidal zone within a 100-m wide band, c. 80 m from the present fore-dune area. Foot- and hoof-prints have been identified in four main areas [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

To date, we have recorded 145 human trails of varying lengths, mainly in sectors 1 and 3. Red deer are particularly common in sectors 3 and 4 and roe deer in sector 3. Aurochs are found mainly in sector 4 and crane is recorded in sector 3 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Unshod horses have been noted in sector 1. From the length of the human footprint it is possible to calculate the individual's approximate height. Stature estimates can be based on foot length as a percentage of body height. The percentage may vary from 14% to 16% according to the population measured, although the classical figure quoted is 15% (Topinard 1877). Foot length and pace and stride measurements provide an additional range of biomechanical information, e.g. walking speed, cadence and velocity (Grieve & Gear 1966; Charteris et al. 1981; Day pers. comm.). Therefore statistics from 75 of the sufficiently well-defined human trails show a mean adult male height of 1.66 m and a mean adult female height of 1.45 m (Roberts 1995). For comparison, mean Early Neolithic male and female heights from Denmark are 1.66 m and 1.52 m respectively (Waldron pers. comm.).

At Formby Point, in the late Holocene mud-flats, records of children are predominant; less common are adult women, and even fewer adult men are represented. Where male footprint trails are recorded, they are often associated with red deer tracks and they indicate an above average speed and cadence. The much slower movement of the women and children would suggest a different economic activity, like gathering shellfood.

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