Discovery of an ancient hearth at Formby


Posted on: 21 August 2020 by Dr Ardern Hulme-Beaman with contributions from Dr Alison Burns in 2020 posts


The sands of Formby Beach
The sands of Formby Beach

Dr Ardern Hulme-Beaman was recently thrilled to discover an ancient hearth hidden in the sands of Formby Beach alongside millennia-old footprints. Learn about the details of the discovery and view the SketchFab scans of the finds.

Wandering along a beach watching the water shimmer silver in pools left behind by the retreating tide you could be forgiven for not dissecting what might have made such small hollows, but being an archaeologist and this being Formby there’s no calm to be found here. Straight to work! In stark contrast to the watery surrounds, we found the remains of an ancient fire marked out in clods of black mud in the shape of long rotted branches.

Having lived in Liverpool for almost 3 years it is with some embarrassment that I must admit this was my first visit to Formby beach to look for the fabled footprints. Having heard they were rare and sometimes difficult to find we weren’t expecting too much, but given the isolation we’re all under, the chance to be out and along the beach could no longer be turned down. In that feverish stage of the last few months of my fellowship it is hard not to put work down, but very much necessary… But I have to bring my camera along, right?

The footprints span some 3-4000 years starting around 8000 years ago. Around that time salt marshes and reed beds would have formed with nutrient rich mudflats. They would have formed during warmer periods of the year, the late spring, summer and early autumn, such as the evening we ventured out. With warmer weather the firmer mud takes on the shapes of wandering feet more readily, preserving them. The prints are regularly revealed and then eroded within a couple of weeks; Formby beach is eroding and moving inland at a rate of approximately 4m a year. The mud deposits they are preserved in are only a foot or so thick, so the revealing of new footprints is both a mixture of the removal of top layers, but also the tide line moving increasingly inland. Until around 1905 the beach was in fact growing as sand was being deposited, so it is possible to go a lifetime (or many) without the opportunity to ever see these prints of ancient people and animals. Aurochs, roe deer and very large red deer prints are common (along with numerous seabird footprints), with the occasional dog and also wolf turning up. Humans, young and old are regularly found, with indications, even, of children playing, but this is not what Formby beach had in store for us.

The footprints are in fact misleadingly close to shore (I had always thought they were supposed to be far out, so of course we waited until the tide was at it’s lowest!). Having intended to have a leisurely wander we couldn’t help but want to at least find the mud flats within which they form and without realising how close they were we spent the first 20 minutes or so in an increasing frustration at not knowing how far out we should be going. When we eventually found them (starting in the south) we found large and deep hollows, roughly in the shape of red deer prints. They were huge and impressive. Deep and widely spaced, this must have been a massive animal, but also the prints weren’t much more than hollows in the formation that you might imagine of a large ambling animal. The detail was poor and we could only tell they were aurochs due to their massive size. We continued…

Now knowing what to look for when we arrived at the northern beds we were surprised to be met by what looked to be a child’s sandcastle on the northern mud deposit. Children’s footprints were everywhere, though the squashed mud squelched through toes in small sharp peaks indicated these were very modern — ancient prints are rounded. But there was something wrong about this seeming sandcastle. The circular outer walls were cracked, like wood cracks when turned to charcoal. Lumps of ‘wall’ were strewn around the place, as though kicked by the child that built them. It was a hearth! That moment of discovery rushed in! And then we felt silly... it can’t be a hearth!

Not being much of an archaeologist these days, and being more of a zoologist, and given the huge breadth of subject matter that encapsulates archaeology, it is hard not to feel unsure when presented with completely new material. This material was hard thick clay like mud and upon inspection the core of these castle walls was dark black, rich in organic matter. It was long decayed wood, the sea had already bitten off the seaward mud shelf, maybe taking with it the footprints of the people who made the fire. Equally this campfire of sorts might then indicate a time when the mud flat was hardened, as building a fire on wet mud is unlikely to be comfortable. So many questions, but this may be the first and last time we can see it. It’s so unbelievably easy to overlook something as ‘Oh that’s probably not that rare’ but with modern technology and a little bit of time, it is becoming easier and easier to record things for later reference. I rushed home to build the photogrammetry model, hoping those shimmering silvers of pooled water didn’t disrupt the model building too much.

Dr Alison Burns, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Manchester on the Formby footprints, was very intrigued to see the model. A hearth would be a first for Formby beach! With a wealth of Formby footprint knowledge, she quickly identified the most likely location of the site given the state of preservation and the black organic preservation conditions due to the sulphurous nature of the northern mud beds, which we were able to confirm (or rather we found that Google was able to confirm as it had tracked our every footstep!). This then is a strange collision of technologies: ancient fire, modern photography, 3D virtual recording and even satellite tracking, and in this way this rare find has been captured for all with frightening and surprising ease for us to virtually gather round and inspect. We may have come a long way from campfires, but then again, maybe we haven’t.

The photogrammetry team and this work was made possible by the University of Liverpool Alumni and Friends Fund and the Leverhulme Trust who fund Dr Ardern Hulme-Beaman.

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Study in the Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool 


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