Beyond the Formby footprints

Prehistoric footprints can be found in the mud on Formby Point

Prehistoric footprints can be found in the mud on Formby Point

Project:
Gaining a better understanding of this area of major archaeological and historical importance
Location:
Between Liverpool and Southport

We’ve have always known that Formby is a site of major archaeological and historical importance. It's a stunning stretch of unspoiled coastline, offering visitors long sandy beaches, intermixed with attractive and unspoiled pinewoods.

But erosion of the sand here has revealed some exciting discoveries, including footprints that date back to the late Neolithic era (7000 years ago).

There is also evidence to suggest the cultivation of asparagus and we’ve discovered numerous other remains alluding to a rural, industrial and maritime past.

However, up until 2005, only the footprints had been explored in any detail. No single document or study covered the full extent of our holdings at Formby.

Historic Landscape Survey

As the site is of such significant historical importance, it was decided that further investigation was desperately needed.

In 2006, the Liverpool Museum Field Archaeology Unit was commissioned to produce an Historic Landscape Survey, allowing us to record and analyse the landscape so we can understand it better. 

The aims of the project were as follows:

  • Identify and record all visible sites, features and landscape elements of archaeological or historic interest
  • Develop a chronological framework for the development of the landscape through time
  • Collect historic maps and documentary evidence
  • Write the story of the property, from the prehistoric to the present day
  • Produce a report to act as a useful tool for property management
  • Highlight any apparent threats to the archaeological resource

The survey revealed Formby’s fascinating, yet often hidden, past. It highlighted the prehistoric footprints, but much more information besides, including: Marram Grass and the stabilisation of the dunes, rabbit warrens, asparagus cultivation, shipping and shipwrecks, fishing and cockling, smuggling, landclaim and tree planting.

All of this information can be found in the full report.

The earliest evidence

Formby Point is part of the Sefton Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest, one of the largest complexes of sand flats and dunes in the UK.

The dune landscape is dynamic and constantly evolving. It's also particularly sensitive to changes in climate, sea-level and the impact of people. 

Following the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago, the environment of South-West Lancashire was considerably different. The landscape was clothed in open woodland of birch, hazel and pine, in which mobile bands of hunters and gatherers lived.

The coast actually lay much further to the west, producing a belt of land which has now been lost under water. The origin of the dunes along Sefton’s coast can probably be traced back 8,500 years.

By 5000 BC, rising sea-levels had cut Britain off from the European mainland. Over the next several thousand years, the Sefton coast moved backwards and forwards, sometimes further to the west, at other times reaching further inland than today.

Footprints out of time

By about 2500 BC, the archaeological evidence suggests that people were making many repeated visits to the area, rather than settling permanently.

We can form an incredible picture of this lifestyle from prehistoric human and wild animal footprints revealed in beach sediments at Formby Point.

There are currently more than 220 identified trails of human footprints. The animal prints include aurochs (large wild cattle), deer, wolf, and wading birds. 

Unfortunately, the prints disappear quickly and a local Formby resident, Gordon Roberts, has largely been responsible for their extensive recording and interpretation. 

Members of the Liverpool Museum, Reading University, Liverpool John Moores University and Oxford Archaeology North have also been involved in placing the prints in their chronological and environmental context.

Stories from the mud

By studying the footprints, with advice from the British Museum, it has been possible to reach conclusions about the physical characteristics and behaviour of the people who made them. For example:

  • The average male height was 1.66m and average female height 1.45m
  • Most of the prints were made by children with a smaller number of women and relatively few adult males
  • Where males are present, they tend to occur in the same areas as red deer and have different stride patterns from the women and children. This suggests that the two groups were involved in different activities.
  • The women and children might have been on the mudflats collecting shells or looking for nesting birds 
  • The adult male prints may reflect hunting or herding activities
  • Radiocarbon dates from roots and animal bones tell us that the footprints were created between 5100 and 3400 years ago, from the late Neolithic to the middle Bronze Age, in intertidal muds 

The footprints at Formby are very very special and we have employed a huge range of archaeological expertise and techniques to bring the story they tell alive. 

The people who made the footprints were doing everyday tasks and cannot have known the importance of the tracks they left behind in the mud. Who knows what people in 4,000 years from now will make of the products we will leave behind us?