Golden in time
Cities under the sand
Power, ideals and beauty
Fading in everyone’s hand
Give me some time
I feel like I’m losing mine
Out here on this horizon line
With the earth spinning
And the sky forever rushing
No one knows
They can never get that close
Guesses at most
Guesses based on what each
Set of time and change is touching
– Joni Mitchell, Sweet Bird
Posting yesterday about the ancient yew tree at Llangernyw, confirmed as being four or five thousand years old, brought to mind the ancient footprints from the same point in time that are occasionally revealed on the sands at Formby.
As a result of erosion, the present coastline around Formby Point coincides with the shoreline during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. At that time there were no high dunes or pinewoods. This was fenland with hazel, oak, alder and birch trees. A shoreline of low, grass-clad dunes was perforated by tidal creeks and fringed with salt marshes.
Nearly 200 footprint trails have been recorded to date. They are ephemeral – revealed by one tide and washed away in the next. From the length of the foot and its shape and by measuring the pace and stride, archaeologists can estimate a person’s height and gender and the speed at which they were moving across the soft mudflats where they left their traces. From their association with red and roe deer tracks, the males would seem sometimes to have been involved with hunting or some form of animal management. At other times, where the footprints led out to or back from the sea, they may have been fishing. The females, often accompanied by children, would appear to have been mainly occupied with gathering food, such as shrimps, razor shells and other seafood. At one site there was a wild confusion of children’s footprints, just as though they had been playing.
Sometimes there is evidence of abnormalities and foot deformities: of a man, crippled with arthritis, or of another who had only four toes on one foot. One trail was left by an adolescent girl with congenital bursitis, seemingly pregnant, her feet arched and toes curled under as she struggled to keep her balance and grip, slowly making her way across the slippery mud.
This was the time of Stonehenge, of the Pyramids, Ur and Babylon, Knossos and Minoa, and of the Indus civilisation. Life among the hunter-gatherers of Formby Point had not really changed much since the end of the Ice Age, some five thousand years previously. But their world was coming to an end. Rising sea levels would eventually overwhelm the offshore sandbar, the mudflats and the fenland. The coastline would change and change again.
Now, though, present-day erosion and rising sea levels allow us one last glimpse of their lost world before it disappears for ever. How my heart aches for those souls, their lives short and hard, traversing their pristine world.
- The Formby footprints
- Beyond the Formby footprints (National Trust project)
- The Prehistoric Footprints at Formby (booklet by Aliaon Burns)
- Formby Neolithic Footprint Casts by Lomo Edits. (The trail of footprints show the path of a woman carrying a baby.)