Prehistoric Intertidal Life at Formby Point

Alison Burns has led a varied working life starting as an occupational therapist followed by working in N.H.S. management and subsequently becoming involved in archaeology and working for her PhD.  Alison brought life to the subject in her talk to the Society on 15 April, and showed us the tangible link we have to the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages by virtue of these footprints.

  Alison started by saying there is debate over the age{s} of the footprints; whether they were all laid down about the same time or over a  much longer timescale. The footprints stretch for about 4km. around the Point and very occasionally footprints can be seen at Ainsdale too. The reason we see them is because of coastal erosion ,the sediment bed which contain them are revealed and some of the footprints have been visible for 5 years though now somewhat degraded.


  9,000 years ago the ice sheets were retreating and there was a great rise in the oceans and also an uplift in the land which in Scotland caused many raised beaches. At this time the land stretched as far as Anglesey and out into what is now the Irish Sea; marshy land which was gradually  swamped and reedbeds started to form  which contained mudflats. It was an open landscape and the river would have been used for humans to travel to the coast. The life seen in the footprints is mostly thought to date  from about 5,500 years ago.

   This open land attracted a large number of birds animals and people coming to the salt marshes and then moving back into the wetlands. From the directions of the human footprints Alison believes that there must have been a settlement under the sand dunes at the Point itself, as these prints seem to form paths. She thought it would have been a very noisy place mainly because of the great numbers of birds as evidenced by the footprints. This area of land from Formby to Anglesey would have been intertidal  and she thought the tides must have been very gentle at this time which enabled the preservation of these footprints. Alison thinks they were laid down between early Spring and late Autumn. Remains of  a Neolithic forest are seen just above the intertidal zone at both Hightown and Formby and amongst the trees which covered half an acre, have been found animal bones and both human and wolf footprints with the roots going through them thus proving that the prints were there before the trees. Nearby red deer and aurochs prints have also been found. The red deer seem to have been a third bigger than modern red deer and the auroch was far bigger than any modern bovine.

  The process of formation happened over a number of years. Animals and people walked on mudflats which were baked by the sun and then filled with sand which protected them, then further mud and sediment would form a lid. Many of these lids can still be seen. It is with erosion that the prints themselves are visible. These natural processes formed laminated beds. The sediment layers have been dated from the Mesolithic through the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The deer and the aurochs prints appear in the same area and this is probably  because they frequented the area at different times of day. There also Roe deer prints too which seem to show animals of the same general size as today. The Crane prints are however the most numerous – there must have been vast flocks of these birds and there are also many oystercatcher prints.

  Footprints of humans include one of a very large man with big feet and a set seeming to show a mother carrying a baby upon her hip – there are also many child and adolescent footprints some of which suggest they were playing and some that they were standing still and possibly consuming some of the food around them as they were probably foraging Some of the footprints show deformities possibly caused through injury. Almost all the human footprints are unshod.. All this is evidence for great use of this area being made by the whole population – It would have been in  an area rich in food resources.

 Alison would like, as part of her ongoing research for her P.H.D. to survey the outcrops and date the beds and put the footprints into the right timeframe. Were these people hunter gatherers or farmers or were they on the cusp of the transition between these lifestyles? She would also like to measure and record the footprints to try to identify what the people were doing and also to look at the landscape and how the animals and people related to it. This was a most interesting talk which brought us in touch with people and animals that inhabited part of our area thousands of years ago. The society has arranged a walk to view them led by Alison Burns on June 25th.

Report by Jeanette Dobson


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