Footmarks: a journey into our restless past


Footmarks is a long and pleasant walk through the mind palace of prehistorian Jim Leary. Along the way, Leary’s delight in the mysteries of past human behaviour gushes forth in an engaging torrent of information, loosely based around some connection with an aspect of human movement.

The book is at once a very general and a very personal account. At intervals we are afforded glimpses of how Leary’s own life experiences have influenced his attitude to movement, from a peripatetic childhood shaped by parents in the airline industry in Asia, to his father’s obsession with random driving holidays in the USA, to his own youthful adventures teaching English in Nepal, travelling around India, and, most intimately, the tragic loss of his elder brother at an early age. Incidents from his excavating career are also peppered throughout, to complete the picture of a thoroughly likeable and self-effacing person. Enough candid information is included for amateur psychologists to delve into the reasons behind the author’s love of deep enclosing holloways.

The book discusses all aspects of human movement, largely based around evidence from the UK and with a leaning to the prehistoric period but incorporating snippets from across the whole world and all of time. This is at once the delight of the book and its main drawback. A series of 18 chapters divides the subject into topics such as footprints and tracks, styles of walking, routes, pilgrimage, ridgeways and holloways, freedoms and restrictions on movement, the role of animals, roads and bridges, weather, sea movement, and migration.

As you might expect, trying to deal with human movement throughout all time, referencing evidence from across the globe, would be a tall task for a series of weighty volumes, never mind a book of fewer than 300 pages. The result is that any item of interest is dealt with in a few short paragraphs or even a few short lines. At one point, the Mayflower, slavery, and the passage of British convicts abroad are all covered in half a page. Only the ancient DNA and isotope evidence for migration, on both an individual and a mass scale, is dealt with at any great length.

The book is characterised by a series of leaps from one item to another as Leary’s butterfly mind races from one florescence of interest to another. At times this becomes a little irritating as, just when he begins to examine a fascinating topic, he drops it and switches period or continents, leaving an unfulfilled desire to know more. The end notes and bibliography do serve well, though, as a guide for those who wish to delve deeper. The other irritation is the complete lack of pictures, when so many of the subjects could have benefited from them, whether it be prehistoric footprints, Danish bog bodies, or erotic medieval pilgrim badges.

Overall, however, the style works, because the information is presented in a lively and amusing way, mixing scientific evidence from some of archaeology’s most famous finds with amusing trivia. Thus, the earliest evidence for bipedal humans is discovered by bored students throwing elephant dung at each other; and discussion of Ötzi, the Iceman, leads on to medieval pointy shoes, codpieces, and Flemish warnings of the dangers of buttock-flaunting.

Scattered through the book are a series of quotes from sociologists, psychologists, authors, and the like, which are no doubt meant to be deep and meaningful but – set against the general tone – seem out of place and somewhat pretentious. The book offers little deep and meaningful insight and is sometimes refreshingly clear about the limits of archaeological evidence. It is all the more lively, honest, and entertaining for that.

Footmarks is a thoroughly engaging stroll through the mystery and complexity of human history with a knowledgeable and amusing guide. It would make a great present for anyone with a general interest in archaeology or history.

Jim Leary
Icon Books, £18.99
ISBN 978-1837730247