Footloose in Archaeology

8 mins read

“Feet- did you say Feet?-Ugh-h-h!” That is the usual remark I hear when I mention my Research Project. I hope that when you have finished reading this your reaction will have changed.

By Phyllis Jackson
As a chiropodist, I spent half a century looking at feet. During this time, I gradually came to realise that pain was more frequently caused not so much by wearing unsuitable footwear as by anomalies in the bone structure. Practising as I did for a quarter of a century in Herefordshire and another long period in a remote part of the Cotswolds, I was able to observe the degree to which in bygone days, repeated inter-marriage caused by the isolation of these rural areas, had turned these slight deformities into a recognisably typical and strongly hereditary shape of foot. This prevails not just in the direct family line but could be perceived in a wider circle of cousins twice removed. When sometimes I was able to look at babies feet before they were put into shoes, it was interesting to see the toe formations that would develop the same family peculiarity. Even then, it occurred to me that in the isolated groups of people in the prehistoric days, in-breeding was inevitable and any anomaly would soon be locked into the strong genetic and therefore tribal shape.

Alongside these regional shapes, I became aware of something much more fundamental, in that the entire foot structure differed from that which is generally regarded as the traditional English foot, – for which all shoe manufacturers in this country design their footwear. The drawing to the right shows what I mean: the right hand foot is the typical English foot: most of the shoes sold in this country will be based on this, although probably the shoe will be more pointed.

The illustration to the left shows a very different shape: it is slim in structure, the longitudinal arch (the one that goes flat!) is much longer than its English counterpart. The toe-line is rather level, unlike the English foot where the structure is such that the toes make quite a steep angle from the first to the 5th.


Two very different types of foot

On the left is what Miss Jackson calls the Scots-Irish type, a long narrow foot, but with the toes almost in a straight line.

On the right is the Modern English type, chubbier than the Scots-Irish type, but with the toes sloping down sharply.

Other types of foot (not shown) include the Italian foot, with a very small little toe. This is often seen on Roman statues, suggesting that it is a type that has persisted for two millenia.


It is extremely interesting to compare the outline of this slim foot with the feet shown on various archaeological sites: for instance with the footprints pecked out on the stone slab at the broch of Clickhimin, in Shetland; the footprint on the rock face at Dunadd, the royal site of the Scots in Argyll; (The Picts and Scots, Lloyd and Jennifer Laing); the illustration of a leather shoe, excavated at the site of Dundur Perthshire (the same volume) and also the wooden shoe last from the early- Christian Site at Deer Park Farm in Northern Ireland (Current Archaeology No. 113).

It will be noticed that all the sites I have mentioned occur either in Scotland or in Ireland. However this shape of foot prevails also in Wales and the Cornish peninsula, including some people from Devonshire; it is unfortunate that I have never seen a Breton foot, but I should be very surprised if the same shape has not prevailed.

Since there is so great a difference in structural shape in the living foot, might not a careful examination of skeletal material also enable differences to be observed? For instance, there seem always to have been considerable difficulties for archaeologists when confronted with cemeteries of the Saxon period. Did the inhabitants of Britain before the incursion of the Saxons have an established shape of foot, and could this shape be traced, and perhaps distinguished from a Saxon shape?


Saxon burials

I was given the opportunity to examine the burials from the Saxon period cemetery at Butlers Field, Lechlade, in Gloucestershire, and quite soon it could be seen that two shapes were emerging. At this point I must point out that it is extremely rare to find a completely excavated foot, let alone a pair; however it is the larger of the bones that are the more diagnostic, and these more frequently are present. the apparent splaying of the metatarsals in these illustrations is caused by the fact that they are no longer bound together as in life by ligaments and tendons.

Comparing the overall structures shown in the two photos, it is easy to discern a considerable difference.


Two sets of feet from Lechlade, in Gloucestershire. Left is a pair of Roman-British feet, representing the native population. To the right is what is probably a ‘Saxon’ foot


Left. A pair of feet from the Roman cemetery at Corinium (Cirencester). This is very similar to the pair above left, suggesting that the pair above, though from a Saxon cemetery, probably represent the native population. Right. A Bronze Age foot from the Wilsford South barrow. This is typical of the Wiltshire feet found in the Devizes museum, but is different from the Cotswold feet, only 50 miles away.

The ankle/heel bones have recognisable variations, but the bone which I find the most useful is the ‘cuboid’ bone, the bone on the outside of the foot between the heel-bone and the 5th metatarsal (the little toe). In what I term the ‘local’ (i.e. Pre-Saxon) foot the cuboid bone is indeed cuboid whereas in all Saxon feet it is more a quadrilateral with a very short outer border.


The most significant of the feet bones is the cuboid bone, the bone on the outside of the foot between the heel bone and the little toe. In the pre-Saxon foot, the bone is indeed cuboid. In the Saxon foot it is more quadrilateral

It is obvious that these differing shapes are a formative factor in the outer border of the foot; other bones have their characteristic shapes, but the cuboid is always the first I look for and hope to find.

A real breakthrough occurred when I was asked to do a similar investigation of the burials excavated nearby at Cirencester (Roman Corinium). One look at the feet from Cirencester (shown above) shows that the similarity between these and the “local” feet from the Lechlade cemetery (above) is unmistakable; of the thirty feet I was able to re-assemble, all save three were of similar type. (Of the three odd ones, two had been beheaded and shared a common grave: they were strangers, from Wiltshire – I came to recognise their feet type later when working at Devizes). But I have little doubt that in the Saxon cemetery at Lechlade, alongside the Saxon newcomers, the descendants of the citizens
of Corinium were also buried.

After my work at Lechlade and Corinium, I was able to examine the feet in the Devizes museum, in Wiltshire. Here too was a typical foot structure with significant differences to that in the Cirencester area: it shows in the Bronze Age foot from the barrow at Wilsford South (G51), shown bottom right in the first set of photos. This shape recurred again in the Saxon cemeteries at Mildenhall, Collingbourne Ducis and Pewsey to mention only three sites, but at each of these the bone structure of the Saxon feet was the same as that found at Lechlade.


Iron Age feet

 My research so far suggested that if one gained a knowledge of the foot structure of the people in an earlier settlement, it should be relatively easy to differentiate between the ethnic origin of people buried within a later cemetery. I therefore wanted to fill the gap between the Bronze Age and the Romano-British period and accordingly requested permission from Prof. Cunliffe to investigate the burials from the excavations of the Iron Age hillfort at Danebury; this he gave most willingly and much help besides.


Top: Neolithic feet from the Nutbane long barrow. Centre is an Iron Age foot from Danebury. All the Danebury feet were very worn. At the bottom is a Saxon foot from the Saxon cemetery at Pewsey. This is a Saxon type and was accompanied by Saxon grave goods.

These pictures show three sets of feet, all from Wessex. But whereas the top two are of the ‘Wessex’ type, the bottom one is Saxon.

It can be seen in the photo (centre) that in spite of the generations of people between the Wilsford South foot and the Danebury foot, there is an obvious similarity. Furthermore, this similarity does not exist between these feet and those of the Corinium people. This encourages me to conclude that, as stated in my opening paragraphs, constant inter-marriage had created an overall ‘tribal’ shape of foot.

The Danebury feet were also very interesting in another way: except for one woman, they were all very worn, indicating the incredibly hard work done by these people. The status of these Danebury burials has always been doubtful as they were found buried in dis-used storage pits, but judging by their feet, I think it highly probable that their short lives were terminated as much by over-work as by disease.

I therefore decided to compare these feet with those of a settlement in the same locality of a similar period. Fortunately I was able to examine those from the wealthy farming community at Owslebury. It was interesting to find the signs of wear were not so intense and that the bones of the Owslebury people, although similar in size, weighed more heavily and the texture more robust. I do not think posthumous conditions had affected this.

To continue this multi-period investigation of foot structures, I examined the three adult inhumations from the Neolithic long barrow at Nutbane near Andover. With these, the ‘diagnostic’ bones were preserved and so well did Skeleton 4 re-assemble that the slightly different alignment I had noted with SK1 and 2 was in these feet most strongly marked. It concerned the mid-foot metatarsal area and was the origin of an assemblage present in all the feet examined in the Wessex area. Although it became modified in the succeeding millennia it was clearly discernible in the Danebury feet.

Neolithic feet

This structural shape is particular to the ‘Wessex’ area (Nutbane, Wilsford, Danebury). It does not occur at any time in the ‘Cotswold’ area (Cirencester, Lechlade) except for the two, previously mentioned, from Corinium.I have recently been investigating another long barrow, that of Hazleton, in the Cotswold area of Gloucestershire. Here the “diagnostic” bones imply a shape similar to those from the Roman cemetery at Cirencester and the local population in the Lechlade cemetery: the same area, five millennia apart!

One structure that is common to the long barrows at both Nutbane and Hazleton is the slight deviation of the first toe toward the mid-line of the body, which must surely indicate that if footwear was worn, it did not constrict the feet in any way.

Mention of this first toe alignment reminds me of the photogrammetric contour plot of the Mesolithic footprints fossilised in the estuarine mud at the confluence of the Rivers Usk and Severn in Gwent. This indicates that the body weight passed from the heel, along the outer border of the foot, transversely across to the 1st toe where the final thrusting-off point shows clearly that this toe was very much inclined to the mid-line of the body – I would think undoubtedly bare-footed; the smaller toes would be curled under.

If any of you who have read this account are amongst the many people who are giving me so much help in what must have seemed a bizarre project, I give you my gratitude; my work would not have been possible without you. And if anyone has any collection of well-excavated foot bones which I can examine at home – longevity and long distance travel are not compatible – I would be most grateful for the opportunity. Any enquiries concerning the subject matter of this article will be welcome.

Phyllis Jackson,
15 Reevers Road,
Newent, Glos
GL18 1TN
tel: 01531 822446


  1. My grandfather,(Atlanta, GA, USA), was a chiropodist, and had a ‘clubfoot’. I have just begun searching my ancestry, and learned that my gr-great grandfather was from England and a shoemaker. I can’t find his lineage yet, but reading your article somehow makes me think feet or shoes are going to lead me to him, and beyond. I’m searching for a Joseph Hart, about 25, somewhere in England (which pleases me!), and there are so many of them! I am so excited! Thank you for this very informative article, a subject which, with all its explanations, never even entered my mind.

  2. I enjoyed your article very much. It seems like more scientists should be considering such interesting studies–no “yuck” reaction at all! I’m sorry to see that you are unable to do further work in this area.

  3. This was an extremely interesting article. No “yuck” from me or my 18 year old daughter.
    Have you found from your research that you can identify a living person “s historical roots so to speak or do you need to see an X-ray of the bones for that? if you have time I would love to hear your response.

  4. amazing! i have long slender feet, long flexible toes, and my second toe is longer than the big one. i have heard 1) this is celtic feet 2) i have neanderthal genes!

  5. Interesting as my grandpa came from Devon and on our ancestry search we think we came from the roman emperor Domitian possible link? Patricia

  6. Your article was fantastic, I am currently undergoing a research project on foot bones myself and found this most helpful 🙂

  7. Fascinating article and very well researched. All too often feet get ignored and I must say her research and conclusions make wonderful sense, Feet are indeed a clue to one’s ancestry -and to the movement of people across the globe.

  8. I have always known I am almost pure Celt and my feet align with the description here – right down to the bunions caused by wearing regulation Clark’s shoes to school in the 60s.I also have incredibly slim heels so can easily ‘walk out’ of my shoes

    I now buy German or, strangely, ballroom dancing shoes which always have straps and low heels. These cope with my 5EEE fit, bunions, and tiny heels. I always describe my feet as duck shaped. Not a pretty sight.

  9. This is a fascinating article and I am hoping
    It is the same lady who I heard about many
    Years ago. At the time she was the perhaps
    The only person who was taking a great
    Interest in the fascinating subject of tribal
    Feet. Is there a published book on this subject?

  10. I just read your article all the way through! Captivating information! Thanks…my feet are the English type–no surprise as my DNA bore that out! I live in Austin, Texas, USA

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