Fossil animal footprints reveal the former presence and sometimes also the habits and habitats of both extinct and extant species. For more recent eras, footprints can reveal the coterminous presence of multiple species, some contemporary with early human populations. Footprints offer snapshots of past environments.
For example, impressions of animal footprints left in wet clay during the manufacture of pottery and tiles can reveal dimensions of rural and urban environments and offer a sense of the close relationships between humans and both domesticated and wild animals in former times. A good example is the widespread discovery of mammal paw prints and bird-feet upon Roman tiles.
Likewise, human tracks preserved in (for example) tephra layers and estuarine muds are some of the most evocative absent presences of once-living human beings. They can give a sense of human habitation and mobility – singly and in groups – and even reveal aspects of bipedalism among early species of hominin. In many ways they are anti-mortuary archaeology – one of the few direct traces of living humans directly left behind without the intervention of mortuary procedure and disposal methods. Another example of this living archaeology are the fingerprints of potters ‘fired’ into their vessels and preserved through centuries or millennia or cave-paintings of human hands.
Footprints are therefore an ever-popular feature for museum display, but their fascination is rarely explored explicitly.
What of footprints in heritage environments? Impressed into permanent surfaces, they are now a widespread means of absent-presence within spaces upon which visitors walk. For me, they create a sense that the visitor is a tracker and explorer into spaces where animals once can be imagined to have walked. They also serve to break down the barriers between viewer and the subject of viewing which is inevitably behind bars or glass.
I would be interested in being directed to any discussions of animal and human footprints past and present. Please come forward and help me out!
I have been long aware of the many concrete surfaces with elephant, tiger and other species tracks within the floors of Chester Zoo, part of the three-dimensional environment by which zoos break down barriers between people and beasts. I missed this out, however, when I blogged about Chester Zoo’s animal traces here.
I noticed this phenomenon most recently on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne as part of the new Window on Wild Lindisfarne monumental ‘bird-hide’/viewing station. Pictures are below of this feature and three images of the animal and wildfowl footprints on display.