EVIDENCE of human life left in the mud of the Severn Estuary has given a fascinating glimpse into life on the Gwent Levels many thousands of years ago during the Stone Age. MARTIN WADE investigates the Mesolithic footprints in the mud at Goldcliff.

The Mesolithic is the name given to the period between the end of the last ice age, around 10,000 years ago, and the beginning of settled farming around 5,500 years ago.

The period, also called the Middle Stone Age, was an ancient cultural stage that existed between the Paleolithic period (Old Stone Age), with its chipped stone tools often made of flint and the Neolithic period (New Stone Age), which was typified by polished stone tools.

Although the Gwent Levels have yielded many finds of these tools, there are other discoveries which perhaps are more fascinating.

Fossils are the most commonly known tangible evidence of prehistoric life we see. They are the often the bones and teeth of long dead creatures which have dissolved to be replaced by hard mineral. These footprints, however are the actual prints of actual people who trod on our piece of earth hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Kirsten Barr is a Doctoral Research Student at the University of Reading's archaeology department. She says the footprints were first discovered in 1986 by a local man, Derek Upton. Since Derek brought these to the attention of archaeologists the site has been monitored and surveyed by the University of Reading.

The area is rich in finds from our very distant past. The foreshore of the Severn Estuary has many sites of archaeological importance, with some of the discoveries including Palaeolithic and Mesolithic flints, a variety of skeletal remains from pigs, deer, horses and a human skull. There have also been finds of Bronze Age buildings at Redwick and Bronze Age spearheads from Porton.

Kirsten tells me that Goldcliff in particular holds some of the richest finds for archaeologists.

“This area is wonderful as a snap shot of the Gwent Levels prehistory, ranging from Palaeolithic flints from around 40,000 years ago to Bronze Age cattle and sheep footprints dated from around 3,500 years ago. She adds: “But the footprints from humans, mammals and birds are perhaps the most significant finds in this area.”

How have those footprints survived from that distant time?

“During the Mesolithic period (10,000-5,500 years ago) water levels were much lower than they are today due to a large amount of the Earth’s water being held in glaciers. This meant that some areas now covered by water were once had people living in them. The Mesolithic footprints are found in that part Goldcliff’s coastal area which is only exposed at the very lowest spring tides.”

She adds: “They’re found on laminations of silty clay.” The readiness of the clay to maintain its shape – its ‘stickiness’ means that prints can survive.

There have been footprints found across the Severn Estuary including at Redwick, Magor Pill and Uskmouth, though Goldcliff is the richest so far, with over 200 human prints found, as well as over 150 bird footprints, over a third of which were made by the crane species.

Kirsten says the footprints have been dated through their association to submerged Mesolithic forest and peat, showing they are mid to late Mesolithic. She says a more accurate method of dating the footprints is now being used called ‘optically stimulated luminescence’.

What is touching about these discoveries is that they can tell us about everyday life lived at that time.

Kirsten says: “They give us an insight into the population demographic of these prehistoric people as they went about their daily lives. Footprints can how big the person was, as well as the way that they walked, and if they had any unique foot features, flat feet for example.”

The footprints also tell of a group often overlooked in studies of the distant past, but who can humanise their story all the more. That group is children. “Children are often the hidden members of prehistoric societies” Kirsten says “as they are rather invisible in the archaeological record, footprints can reveal them. The footprints at Goldcliff are dominated by those made by children, with experimental work with modern children showing that some of them were as young as two or three.”

Footprints from birds and animals can also tell us a story about an area and tell us when they were made. Kirsten tells how all the crane footprints, apart from possibly one, were made on silty clay laminations during the summer, we know that it was summer as the particle size of the laminations were small, whereas winter sediments contain larger, sandy particles. These crane footprints are some of the earliest evidence of the crane species in Wales and may date back as far as 7,600 years.

The Mesolithic crane footprints are of particular interest at the moment, as during the summer of 2016 a pair of crane nested on the Gwent Levels and raised a fully-fledged chick, this is the first recorded pair of crane to breed in the area since their localised extinction, possibly more than 500 years ago.

The discoveries are not just of footprints. Near to where they are, there are also the remains of a submerged Mesolithic forest. The remnants of oak trees can still be seen when there is a very low tide.

Although the Gwent Levels are rich in archaeology, Kirsten says there are efforts to tell the fascinating story of the Gwent Levels’ past to a wider audience.

The ‘Living Levels Landscape Partnership’, funded by the Heritage Lottery, is trying to do this, Kirsten tells me by showcasing and celebrating the archaeology, heritage and conservation of this unique area.

Their aim is to help us imagine where the muddy waters of the Severn speed by was once forest and amongst the trees were men, women and children living primitive lives by hunting and fishing, sleeping under shelters made of animal hides. These footprints give us a tantalising glimpse of that time long ago.