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Echoes in the sand

16 Dec, 2013

Do you ever worry about leaving a lasting impression? In this piece, highly commended in the 2013 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize for its evocative writing and atmosphere, Josh Davis describes remarkable traces of life that have lasted for thousands of years.

A footprint on Formby beach

An ancient deer print on Formby beach

Spring sunlight shimmers off the wet sand revealed by the ebbing tide, rain patters on my coat as I scan Formby beach one damp Sunday afternoon. I’m with Alison Burns, an archaeologist from Manchester University, and a dozen brave locals. Eventually Burns finds what we’ve been looking for in a patch of brown sediment jutting out from under the sand. We gather round. It is the footprint of a large red deer. As we glance around, we notice many more – a herd. Have we just missed them? Further along the beach, Burns finds something else: a trail of human footprints leading into the dunes. But however carefully we follow them, we’ll never find the people that made them. Not left by damp day-trippers like us, these prints are tangible evidence of someone passing by 6000 years ago.

During the Mesolithic, this stretch of coast had a large reed marsh protected from the sea by a sand bar. As people and animals walked through the soft mud, their prints were baked hard by the sun and covered in a fine layer of silt from the river flowing into the marsh. Over time the river migrated south, the sand bar disappeared. Millennia later, the sea now washes away the silt, slowly giving up this secret snapshot of ancient life. After a window of time, the tide returns to reclaim them. By determining the age of the sediment, scientists have been able to date the footprints to the late Mesolithic to early Neolithic (4000BC).

Gordon Roberts, a local resident, has been researching these “ephemeral imprints” since 1989 when he first found tracks himself. He realised that there were many reports of prints but no one was recording them. He has since documented more than 200 human trails and countless animal tracks, building a unique picture of the environment in which these people lived. The list of animal tracks includes species such as red and roe deer, dogs or wolves, boar, oyster catchers and cranes, as well as the extinct aurochs.

But it’s the prints of our ancestors who walked this coastline 6000 years ago which are truly special. Rather than simply inferring a lifestyle from artefacts, we can glimpse the life of these people as it happened. From the footprints, Roberts tells me, we can deduce the approximate height and sex of an individual, and by the pace and stride we can calculate their speed of movement.

This information can give us an incredible insight into what Neolithic people were getting up to in this marsh. Adult male human tracks are often found in association with those of red deer: it appears that the men were following, possibly even managing, the herds. There are other tracks which lead directly out to sea where the men may have been fishing. While the men were out hunting, the women and children appear to have been gathering food such as shrimp and shellfish from the marsh itself. There are even prints from children running and playing in the mud.

Burns is just as interested in what the tracks don’t show. They span the Mesolithic-Neolithic boundary, when farming and animal husbandry were starting to spread within the British Isles. But these prints show a distinct lack of change. Men still wander out to sea to fish while women continue to patrol the shore looking for shellfish. The footprints seem to show a community in stasis, unchanging while the world around adopts new techniques. Burns believes this is because there was simply no need to start farming or raising livestock here. The marshlands were as productive as ever, the game clearly still plentiful, and quality of life apparently high.

So high in fact, that these communities were able to support the disabled. There are imprints made by people with deformities: missing toes, deformed feet and evidence of club foot. We might have thought these people would struggle to survive within a hunter-gatherer society but, on the contrary, the prints tell us they thrived too.

These footprints offer us more than just hard facts and data. Standing on the beach on this Sunday afternoon, looking at the track made by a woman 6000 years ago, I immediately feel an intimate connection. I can’t help but wonder where she had been, what she had been doing. Was she returning from a successful afternoon collecting razor clams? Did she have children waiting for her in the forest? We’ll never know. Time and tide wait for no one. Leaning into the rain, heading home, we leave the returning tide to take away forever these amazing echoes of the past.

Josh Davis

Davis JThis is an edited version of  Josh’s original entry. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our How I write about science series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Read all the essays from 2011 and 2012 in our archive.

Image credits: Josh Davis (top); Thomas SG Farnetti
One Comment leave one →
  1. 16 Jan, 2014 5:26 pm

    Josh, this makes a wet walk in the rain all worth while. Well done!

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