The footprints of Formby - a fascinating peek into a lost world

Formby-Coast.jpg

Dec 12, 2014 by James

Formby in Merseyside may seem, at first sight, just like any other affluent residential area. Lying just outside Liverpool, its beaches and diverse wildlife make it attractive to tourists, and the area has been designated a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

Since the early 50’s, Formby has taken on a very particular significance for anybody interested in archaeology, anthropology and/or history. Due to the shifting nature and past of the area's coastline, and the effects of erosion, the beach around Formby Point has revealed the footprints of the men, women, children and animals that walked there in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, between 7,500 and 4,500 years ago. The study of these prints has provided fascinating insights into the way our ancestors lived, millennia ago.

 

How were the footprints made?

In the late Mesolithic period, geological changes to the area caused the shoreline at Formby Point to become waterlogged and muddy. For 3,000 years the local people left their footprints where they walked, hunted and played, and sometimes these would be baked hard by the sun - a little like footprints left in concrete, although less durable. Over time the coastline changed, and by the early Bronze Age the prints were covered over and sealed.

However, as millennia passed the coastline changed again, and because of coastal erosion the present coastline around Formby Point is pretty much the same as it was when the footprints were made. This began to be evident around 1950, when locals spotted footprints in what seemed to be mud or oil slicks on the beach. In fact, these were the remains of the coastline sealed in the Bronze Age, and many revealed - often briefly and for the last time - the footprints of its former occupants, where they had trodden thousands of years before.

 

Transient

Although there was general awareness of the footprints among local people, for many years there was little recording or study taking place. This was a worrying situation, since the footprints were transient and as soon as they were revealed, could be destroyed by the next tide. Fortunately, in 1989, local residents Gordon Roberts and his late wife, Patricia, became aware of this and for the next decade spent a huge amount of time and effort recording, casting and studying the footprints as they came and went.

 

What now?

Footprints are still appearing in the area and it is possible to take guided tours run by the Sefton Coast Landscape Partnership and the National Trust. The National Trust, as guardian of the local SSSI, has since 2006 been conducting its own research into the historical development of the area, finding evidence of crop cultivation, animal management and industries such as fishing, cockling and even smuggling.

The footprints of Formby tell us a great deal about our predecessors: they seem to have hunted red deer and the now extinct aurochs (a form of cattle), and the women seem to have taken their children along as they hunted for shellfish and other foods along the shore. Perhaps most touchingly of all, the footprints show our ancestors to be very like us: some tall, some small, but all utterly human.