Step back in time
The Happisburgh footprints are back. It’s been three years since they hit the news, but they keep returning in different ways to remind us about the amazing story that they tell – this time in the free Asahi Shimbun Display Moving stories: three journeys, in Room 3 until 30 April 2017. Utilising advanced 3D modelling, the footprints are displayed as a captivating projection within the space.
The footprints were discovered by pure chance in May 2013 on the foreshore beneath the cliffs of the Norfolk village. We were working with geophysics on the beach, recording the ancient river and estuary sediments that lie beneath the beach sand. Much of the sand had been washed away in recent storms, revealing large stretches of compacted silts and sands that had been estuary muds from the River Thames almost a million years ago.
At first I didn’t see them, but my friend and colleague Martin Bates pointed out these unusual elongated shapes on a surface of the muds in an area about 4 or 5 metres long and up to 3 metres wide. He instantly recognised them as human footprints, but I was more sceptical.
Could they be recent? The answer was no – the silts were hard and compacted and there was no way you could make an impression in them. Had they been eroded by the sea? Again, no – many of the hollows were definitely foot-shaped, with one end wider than the other and often a concave edge opposite a straight one. In one case you could even distinguish toes!
We had to act quickly before the sea eroded them away. Lifting them was impossible as the silts were heavy and we simply didn’t have the time – it would have taken weeks. Fortunately a new technology was available – multi-image photogrammetry – where a series of digital photographs can be merged to form a 3D model. A few days later specialist photographer Sarah Duffy visited the site to start recording the footprints. Because of the tides, we couldn’t get on to the beach until mid-afternoon, by which time the weather had deteriorated. But in wind-lashed rain we still managed to sponge out the water and sand from the hollows and from a rather precarious stepladder record the surface. A week later the footprints had been washed away by the sea.
It took a few days for Sarah to process the photographs but when she emailed through the 3D model I was finally convinced – the result was amazing, and this is what you can see projected in the display located in Room 3. From the model we could identify both adults and children, and we seemed to be dealing with a family group that were pausing at the edge of the estuary. So who were they?
Although we have no human bones from Britain, the most likely species was Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’, who lived in southern Europe at this time, around one million years ago. They were slightly smaller-brained than ourselves, but walked upright, with average males standing at about 1.73 metres (5ft 8in) tall.
Previous excavations at Happisburgh uncovered simple flint tools with an incredible array of plant and animal remains. Together, these help us to paint a picture of the environment in which these people lived. The grasslands of the river valley were grazed by herds of horse and deer, but there were also larger mammals like rhinos and mammoths. We do not know whether the people were hunters or scavengers, but they were certainly competing for game with hyenas and sabre-toothed cats. The valley was fringed by coniferous forest and we know that the climate was cooler than East Anglia today. As the oldest site excavated in northern Europe, this prompts questions about how humans survived the long, cold winters. Did they have clothing, shelter or fire? At the moment we simply don’t know.
The footprints are just one of the three stories in the Asahi Shimbun Display located in Room 3 that tell of human migration. We wanted to somehow enliven the still image of the footprint surface to reflect this, so came up with the idea of slowly ebbing water, and as it flows away highlighting first the adults and then the children’s footprints. This gives an amazing effect, and it’s accompanied with the gentle sounds of water, estuary birds and children’s chatter.
Happisburgh tells of a metaphoric journey where people have crossed the natural boundaries of their known world. It is a story of survival in a harsh environment, but also one of opportunity. It is this journey and similar endeavours that eventually led to improved hunting and the use of clothing, shelter and fire – the provision of basic human needs that are still important to us today.
The Asahi Shimbun Display Moving stories: three journeys is free and in Room 3 until 30 April 2017.
Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.