Sefton Sands Coast


Sefton Sands

Series exploring Britain's coastline. Nicholas Crane visits the beautiful coastal area of Sefton Sands and the surrounding mudflats.


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15 miles beyond Liverpool,

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Alice Roberts is crossing Sefton Sands,

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one of the UK's most extensive stretches of dunes.

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Nearly there. I must say, this is a pretty exciting journey to work.

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The Sefton Sands are over 4,000-years-old.

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And there's a mystery, not in the dunes, but buried on the beach.

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Beneath the sand lie layers of clay which bear ancient human footprints

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left here over 5,000 years ago.

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But once exposed by the tide, they last a few days before vanishing.

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So I'm meeting specialists to work out who these people were and what they were doing.

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-John, how far has this arm actually got to go up?

-To the pin.

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Dr Annie Worsley is a physical geographer from Edgehill College,

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and Professor Michael Day

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of London's Natural History Museum is one of the world's leading experts in fossil footprints.

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Gordon Roberts discovered the prints by chance, 15 years ago when he was walking his dog.

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The tides wash away the sand lying on layers of clay underneath,

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revealing footprints running in trails across the surface.

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-A right foot, a left foot, a right. This one looks...

-That looks lovely.

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It's less distorted, so if we sponge it out...

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-That's been compacted by the weight of the person.

-That's lovely.

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It looks like an adult-size foot to me, Gordon.

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You can feel how compacted it is.

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It's been baked in mud in the sun.

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That's really hard.

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Originally formed in mud, the prints were baked solid by the sun

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and preserved with layers of sand.

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Successive investigations have confirmed them to be at least 5,000 years old.

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This is somebody that's walked up the beach, and you can see

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the footprints disappearing underneath here.

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That's how we know for sure that they weren't made yesterday.

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That's right.

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The fact that the trails continue underneath a datable layer of clay

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proves that the footprints were not formed yesterday.

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The prints are recorded before being washed away by the tides.

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In 15 years, Gordon has painstakingly catalogued

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273 trails before they were lost forever.

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One of the first to interpret this kind of ephemeral archaeology

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was Professor Michael Day.

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He deciphered the earliest human footprints discovered in Tanzania - over three million years old.

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I want to know what they can tell us

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about the people that made them.

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There's more information than you might expect.

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You can find out about them. You can tell their height from the length of the foot.

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You can find what he or she was doing.

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You also get information from the environment.

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Your height is approximately seven times the length of your foot.

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I make that about 260 millimetres.

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So it's a simple calculation to work out how tall this person was.

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And that's about 1.7 metres, which is about 5'7", 5'8".

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Oh, that's exactly the same as me!

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Yeah, so this is a Mesolithic person, same height as me.

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-Not an ancestor?

-Maybe!

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What do you think the lifestyle of these people 5,000 years ago would have been?

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Remember, there was no farming, they could not produce food easily.

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The reason for them being on this beach must be to do with food.

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-Yeah.

-They were scavengers, hunters, getting whatever they could find.

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So this is the end of hunter-gathering.

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-It's just before farming.

-Just the beginning of farming, when food production became a big revolution.

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Of course, dress them up as we're dressed up now,

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and they'd be passed on the beach without any hesitation.

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We've got the sample now, and it's nicely coloured up with saffron and glycerol.

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Annie Worsley is examining organic material

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from close to the footprints to find clues about what kind of environment

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these people called home five millennia ago.

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We've got spheroidal carbonaceous particles.

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-Oh!

-In other words, they're round, they're made of carbon, instead of angular black fragments.

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-Surely that's just more charcoal.

-That's from a big bonfire of some sort.

-Really?

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It could be they are getting pottery kilns going, or metal.

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The fragments of charcoal and plant material

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are all that remain of the world our ancestors inhabited.

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But they contain vital clues about why these people were here.

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It didn't look exactly like it does today. There may have been sandhills

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several kilometres west, in other words, out under the sea.

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But in-between here and those sand ridges,

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would have been a complex landscape made up of lagoons, tidal creeks.

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There would have been salt marshes, and there would have been scrubland

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a little way east from where we're sitting now.

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Between 5,000 - 7,000 years ago,

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we're looking at an average July temperature

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a degree or two warmer than today.

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Which might be why the animals came here and the people came here.

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After the last ice age, our island became densely covered

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in primeval forest, so prehistoric people sought out the resources they needed along the coast.

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With the tide fast approaching and light fading,

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Gordon's found a huge set of prints belonging to an aurochs, the ancestor to the modern cow.

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They could be a clue to what these people were doing here.

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-Wow! They're huge!

-Yes, indeed, this perhaps is the best.

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You can see a sort of cloven hoof.

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I wouldn't like to come face to face with the thing that made these.

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Bull aurochs were fast and ferocious,

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and of course large - six foot high to the shoulder blades.

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-11 foot from the muzzle to the rump.

-Huge.

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This is a modern cow's foot,

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and you can see the cloven-hoof down here.

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But you can see how much smaller...

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This is a full-grown cow, not a calf. A full-sized cow.

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I wouldn't like to meet it on the beach.

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So following the last ice age, our coast was not at the margins of human life,

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it was at its centre.

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It was here that our ancestors experienced

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one of the greatest revolutions,

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away from subsistence by hunting and gathering towards farming.

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Deep beneath the Sefton sand, we see more than mere footprints -

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we get to see the marks of one of humanity's greatest leaps forward.

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Series exploring Britain's coastline. Nicholas Crane visits the beautiful coastal area of Sefton Sands and the surrounding mudflats, where he discovers 5,000-year-old footprints in the mud before the tide comes in to make them disappear forever.


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