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An updated version of the article about the ‘Formby Footprints’ first published fifteen years ago in the Winter 1997 edition of ‘Coastlines’


The lost world of Formby Point: The ‘Formby Footprints’ in their prehistoric context

by Gordon Roberts, member of the Sefton Coast Partnership Archaeology and History Task Group

Because of erosion, the present coastline around Formby Point coincides roughly with the shoreline of the late Mesolithic to the late Neolithic period, ie from c5000 BC to c3000 BC.  A barrier of low dunes may already have existed around 8000 years ago, but the environment was quite different from that of today.  East of those dunes, where the township of Formby now stands and extending across the Moss, the earlier, post-Ice Age saltmarsh had now evolved into a fen woodland with hazel, oak, alder, pine and birch.  The dunes were perforated by brooks, draining fresh water seawards out from the fen, and also by tidal creeks.  The Alt Estuary lay just to the south of Lifeboat Road and not at Hightown, as it does now.
 Visitors today walking along the beach may at times notice patches of mud, exposed - then subsequently broken up - by the tides and longshore currents. Some have even thought that they were slicks of oil that been had washed ashore.  They are, in fact, Holocene marine sediments, deposited in the lea of an offshore sandbar onto a gently shelving beach some 7,500 years to 4,500 years ago.  A closer look will reveal that they are laminated and that within some of these strata, footprints of animals, birds and humans inhabiting the coastal area at that time have sometimes been preserved, their tracks baked hard by the sun five thousand years and more ago.  

Here, emerging from beneath or disappearing under later tidal silt deposits, are the hoof prints of red deer, roe deer, unshod horses and, especially, of the aurochs, an ancient species of wild cattle.  (The aurochs was hunted into extinction in Britain by the end of the Bronze Age. However, we know from skeletal remains and from Classical and later European literary accounts that it had been an awesome and fear-inspiring animal.  A fully-grown, lofty-horned bull could stand six feet high to the shoulder blade and measure eleven feet from the muzzle to the rump.  An irascible creature which, despite its size, was fast and ferocious and generally to be avoided by man and beast alike.)  Here also are the tracks of wild boar and 'canidae' - although it is difficult to discern clearly whether the latter were indeed wolves or merely large dogs.  Among the wading birds, the footprints of the oystercatcher are the most numerous, but those of the common crane are the most impressive.

Of all these ephemeral imprints, it is those of humans which evoke the 'tingle factor'. Currently, gait analyses have been made of more than two hundred trails, though, over the past sixty years since the first few were seen, one cannot imagine just how many imprints may have been revealed and then destroyed, unnoticed, unrecognized and un-researched.  From the length of a footprint, its shape, and by measuring pace and stride, one can gain some idea of gender, roughly estimate a person's height, and calculate the speed at which he or she was moving across what were then soft mudflats.  From their association with red and roe deer tracks, adolescent and adult males would seem at times to have been involved with hunting or some form of animal management.  On other occasions, where the footprints led out to or back from the open sea, they may have been fishing.  The females, mostly young, and sometimes accompanied by children, would appear to have been mainly occupied with gathering food, eg searching for shrimps, razor clams and other seafood, or looking for birds eggs among the reed beds.  At one site there was a wild confusion of much smaller footprints, as though children had been playing around in the mud - quite literally mud-larking, in its original, linguistic sense!

Photographs and plaster casts can also record evidence of abnormalities and foot deformities: Those of a man, seemingly crippled with arthritis, or of another who had only four toes on one foot and whose metatarsals had completely collapsed, yet another, an individual with claw foot.  And there was the trail of an adolescent girl with bursitis – from her gait, one interpretation is that she may also have been pregnant, her feet arched and toes curled under as she tried to compensate for the change in her centre of gravity, struggling to keep her balance and foothold, slowly making her way over the slippery mud.

But, perhaps, one ought also to look at Britain and Formby Point at that time within a wider context.  In many respects, little seemed to have changed in the lives of those hunter-gatherers in what is now North-West England since the end of the Ice Age some five thousand years previously.  Yet that way of life was coming to an end.  When the ice sheets had first begun to recede around 9000 BC, an extensive tract of tundra-like land had lain to the north and west of today’s Sefton Coast.  Its shoreline extended south from the Mull of Galloway to Anglesey.  Temperatures rose and the land greened.  Into that rich landscape of low, wooded hills, streams, rivers and lakes came first the birds and animals, followed by the hunter-gatherers of the early Mesolithic period.  However, the glacial ice still continued to melt and global sea levels would eventually rise by over 120 metres.  Day by day, year by year, century by century, the land would gradually be inundated by what has now become the Irish Sea and Liverpool Bay, compelling the animals and those earliest generations of inhabitants to retreat and retreat again from the ever advancing tides.  After initial marine transgressions eastwards, the prehistoric Sefton coastline eventually stabilized.  Did those later Mesolithic, and then Neolithic peoples living by the sea ever speak of a Great Flood, of an ancient Eden, of a Stone Age Lyonesse, far out to the west, deep beneath the waves? 

Elsewhere, societies were changing rapidly.  The dawning of the Third Millennium BC would witness a world of great, thriving cities and vibrant, innovative cultures: Ur and Babylon, Knossos and Minoa, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Xia Dynasty in China and the Indus Valley civilisation.  Less spectacularly, by 3000 BC hunting had already largely given way to agriculture in southern Britain.  The population was growing in size.  Throughout the country large tracts of ancient forests were being burnt and the land cleared for settlement and cultivation.  There were now villages and farming communities.  The cultural and religious monuments of Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill would dominate the landscape of Salisbury Plain.

As the Neolithic period was drawing to a close, there was a westward progradation of the land at Formby Point.  By 2400 BC, the offshore sandbar, the intertidal lagoon, its mudflats and the footprint trails which they contained had been covered over and sealed in beneath a new, a Bronze Age landscape.

Coastal erosion at Formby Point permits us to have one last, wondrous glimpse of that Lost World – even to step forward into the Past and walk unseen among its animals and birds and people before all traces vanish for ever.  GR©

Formby Footprints - paper