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Archaeological Footprints

(and other traces)

bricks drying in Sudan

A field of drying bricks in Sudan, 1970s. Photo: Steve Dobson

Footprints (and other traces of animal activity such as burrowing or gnawing) are surprisingly common in archaeological contexts, but their potential for environmental interpretation is rarely acknowledged. Use has been made of footprints in cave deposits, which can remain undisturbed for thousands of years; and in coastal silts in western England, where footprints of Bronze-Age people and animals are being exposed. The most famous archaeological footprints are those at Laetoli in East Africa, where footprints in 3.6 million year old volcanic ash proved at a stroke that human ancestors were walking upright at that time.

My own particular interest is in the occurrence of animal footprints in bricks and tiles. These occur because newly-formed bricks need to be dried for several days before they are fired, otherwise the moisture within the clay would burst the bricks as it boiled off. In the past the bricks were laid on the ground to dry, giving various animals an opportunity to walk across them. I have identified human, dog, cat, cattle, caprine (sheep/goat), pig, fowl, horse and mustelid footprints on such bricks.

Perfect dog footprints in a Roman tile from Vindolanda

Dog footprints in a Roman tile from 1st century Vindolanda. The larger, rounder print is from a front foot or manus, the other (on the left) from a hind foot or pes. Symmetrical feet, with big, oval toes and thick, prominent claws, well separated from the toes, are characteristic of dog prints. Photo: Will Higgs

I am working on the archaeological section of the website at present, and hope to include examples of the following species:


1. Dog (Canis familiaris)

2. Cat (Felis catus)

3. Mustelid (Mustela sp.)

4. Sheep/Goat (Caprine sp.)

5. Cattle (Bos taurus)

6. Pig (Sus scrofa)

7. Horse (Equus caballus)

8. Domestic Fowl (Gallus sp.)