BORDER-L ArchivesArchiver > BORDER > 1998-11 > 0910997299
From: "Jacqueline Chisick" <>
Subject: celtic and anglo/saxon feet
Date: Fri, 13 Nov 1998 14:48:19 -0800
FROM: Jacqueline Chisick
Port Townsend, Washington, USA
Following is an article which I found interesting. This is a duplicate of
what I already sent, but my first post doesn't seem to have gotten to the
Footloose in Archaeology
by Phyllis Jackson
(This article was published in Current Archaeology 144, August 1995)
"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.
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.
Click here for drawings.
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?
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 top two photos, it is easy to
discern a considerable difference. Click here for the photos. 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. Click here for drawing of cuboid bone. 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 shown overpage bottom left, 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
It can be seen in the photo (second set, 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 (see
second set of photos, top).
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
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
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.
15 Reevers Road,
tel: 01531 822446
Go to first set of pics | Go to second set of pics | Go to Drawings
Return to Current Archaeology Highlights
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