Footprints in Time

Thousands of years ago, our ancestors went for a walk and left their footprints behind……

In South Wales there are many seaside sites where both footprints and plant remains have been preserved for centuries.  This combination provides a snapshot of prehistoric life in the now submerged landscapes, and can help us to imagine what may happen in our future.

Over the spring and summer of 2016 Footprints in Time worked with school groups, the public at CADW monuments and with festival goers across Wales to explore the the fascinating world of our coastal heritage. 

The Project: From physical footprint to carbon footprint

Footprints in Time is based on Guerilla Archaeologist, and Cardiff University PhD student, Rhiannon Philp’s research into prehistoric environmental change in South Wales. At Port Eynon on the Gower Peninsula she is studying a number of footprint trails along the shore, and the mud/peat they are preserved in.  Working with our project partners, Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd., we created a project that looked at human footprints in the past and thought about human ‘footprints’ in the future.


Human footprints in the peat at Port Eynon

Our main focus was the development of workshops suitable for secondary school aged participants. We also ensured that the various elements we created could be rolled out to wider-ranging audiences through the medium of Guerilla Archaeology.

The Workshops:        

We developed three standalone workshops, which can be combined to form a more intensive session.

Workshop 1: Whose footprints?

Firstly, we introduce participants to the idea of drowned landscapes and archaeological evidence in the intertidal zone, using the Port Eynon footprints. They can then explore who left these footprints by comparing them to modern footprints.


Investigating prehistoric footprints by measuring and comparing to living data

Over the past couple of years we have been gathering data on the footprints of modern individuals. This data set has been collected at outreach events, from Cardiff Archaeology students and school groups, and is added to at each workshop. (If you attended Guerilla Archaeology events over the last few years, you may well have contributed to this dataset yourself!).  By comparing ancient footprints to our modern data, on foot length in relation to height and age, it is possible to measure ancient footprints and discover facts about the folk who left them. For example, some of the footprints at Port Eynon are the same size as those of small children.

Workshop 2: Exploring Microworlds

Secondly, we ask people to help us investigate the environment these footprints were made in.  By looking at tiny plant remains, such as pollen,  preserved in the mud and peat we can find out what plants were growing.  To help everyone visualise this miniature world we created giant pollen grains – 2000x their normal size (about the size of a tennis ball).


3D printed pollen!

The giant pollen help us spot the differences between the grains of various plant species. These models were produced as a joint venture between Cardiff University’s Archaeology Department and Bioimaging Centre by scanning modern and ancient pollen using confocal microscopy and creating 3D models which were then printed.

More information about the creation of the giant Pollen grains can be found on the Bioimaging blog

We then provide everyone with images of the pollen found with the footprints across time, and with the help of our giant pollen and simple ID guides we ask people to spot and count the different types present. Then we get out our handy ‘Top Trumps’ style info cards, which make it easy to work out what the presence and proportion of the different pollen grains means.  By playing pollen snap and adding up how much of each type is present, people can work out what environment the pollen comes from – salt marsh, fresh water bogs or dry land.  In this way pollen can help to visualise the landscape that ancient footprints were created in.


Where’s polly?

This ‘Where’s Polly’ game also helps folk to understand how science can recreate the past environments.  By doing this we can better map past climate change, which in turn can help us investigate current and future environmental issues.

Workshop 3: Future Footprints?

Joanna Lane from Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd. created our final workshop.  In this we introduce the idea of resource exploitation in the Severn Estuary and how our environmental “footprints” have changed from prehistoric times, right through to the present day.  Utilising the My2050 website, we initiate a group debate on how best to reduce our carbon footprint and the proposed solutions are entered into the website, with the aim of bringing carbon levels down to 20% of the 1990 recorded values.

The final task in our workshops is to get creative.  We ask participants to create a stop:start animation about their learning from the day – using our vast range of props, i.e. Playmobil and Plasticine!

Pilot Sessions

We ran pilot sessions with a local school through SHARE with Schools  and visiting A Level students via the Step-Up Programme. The pilots were extremely successful, and filmed as part of an film that explains how and why university staff engage with the public.

We also received great feedback from the schools:

“…all the workshops were spot on! Great spread of literacy and numeracy skills and really useful and practical ideas.”

The session was incredibly well run and really inspired our students.”

Some fantastic animations that explored the world of ancient footprints were created by our participants, as can be seen in the examples below.

Roaming on the beach……by our participants from Fitzalan High School:
Another animation by A Level students on the Step-Up Plus scheme:

Guerilla Takeover

The workshops were then adapted for festival delivery and appeared at Guerilla Archaeology events over the spring and summer.  We started at Parc Le Breos on the Gower and then went to the Bryn Celli Ddu summer solstice event on Anglesey.

At both we collected foot and height data and got people interpreting the Port Eynon footprints. We also encouraged everyone to keep their eyes skinned for possible new sites along the British coastline as more and more of these types of sites are being exposed due to increasingly stormy weather conditions.


Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey

At the National Eisteddfod, our multi-coloured 3D pollen took centre stage in an adapted Pollen ID challenge.


3D pollen at the National Eisteddfod

This activity was also used at Green Man Festival. The colourful pollen grains proved to very popular and acted as a great visual draw to the Guerilla Archaeology tent in the Settlers camp.


GA’s Matt runs the guess the environment challenge at Green Man

In a final exciting development, Rhiannon’s research got prime time TV exposure in September when she was interviewed about the Port Eynon Footprints for BBC 2’s Coast: The Great Guide.


Rhiannon is interviewed by Tessa Dunlop for Coast

Popular Pollen

By far the biggest success in terms of the resources has been the 3D printed pollen. These giant colourful grains have proved extremely popular with our participants, members of the public and pollen experts. We’ve even had interest shown by the Met Office! We are looking to develop this resource further and hopefully make it available to others in the very near future.

Crowd-sourced data

The data collected through our activities is also not going to waste and we are continuing to collect height and foot data at GA events.  We will use this to formally investigate the the demographics of the group of people who left the Port Eynon footprints.  Combined with ongoing research into the past environment at this site, we are building a picture of who these people were, what they were doing and the landscape they were moving through.

Workshops for all

The workshops are now available to roll out to schools via SHARE with Schools and provide a good basis for showing the link between history and science, through the themes of Prehistory and Climate Change.

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