Archaeology is the study of people. No matter how caught up we get in studying building remains or the minute details of changing object typologies, our ultimate aim is to better understand our ancestors. Aside from the discovery of human remains, and even surpassing them in some sense, is the discovery of traces of an individual’s actions at specific, fleeting, moments in time.
Roman roof tiles are well known for the imprints that can be left in them. Aside from the fingerprints and identification marks left deliberately or accidentally by the potter, animal prints are well attested finds and popular elements of museum handling sessions. Dogs, cats, deer, sheep, goats – all are known to have left their mark on tiles, presumably wandering across them while they were left drying in the sun before being fired. While these all rightly attract interest, the discovery of much rarer examples of human footprints are even more evocative, but raise some interesting questions about how and why they were made.
This roof tile, found in Lincoln, contains a wonderful example of such a human footprint. Measuring c.20cm in length, the footprint is that of a child of approximately 6 years old (using modern average foot sizes). The print has picked out the toes clearly, and the clay has even preserved the imprint of the skin.The footprint matches the general pattern for human footprints on Roman tiles, which were usually made by either a child, as is the case here, or by an adult wearing hobnailed sandals.
The big question, though, is why are these prints, whether made by animals or humans, on the tiles? We cannot discount the possibility that they represent accidents – animals wandering randomly across the tile producing area, particularly if the tile manufacture was taking place on a site that also included animal husbandry, though it seems likely that steps would have been taken to prevent that happening. Human footprints, however, seem more unlikely to be random accidents, particularly as only single prints seem to occur on tiles and the feet making the impression are consistently children or booted adults. Although the overpowering urge to place a bare foot into wet clay is timeless, the apparent consistency of the impressions makes it hard to believe that this can explain them all. Classics Professor at the University of Utah A.M. Christensen has discussed prints on tiles on his blog (check out the page here) and he highlights an example from an Etruscan site where people appear to have fled a fire, running across laid out tiles. Even accounting for the panic that must have ensued, the patterns left in the tiles in that example are very different to what we normally see.
The suggestion has been made (and disputed) that the marks are not only deliberate, but may be apotropaic in nature – intended to be a good luck symbol, presumably for whatever structure the tile was intended to be part of. This does cause some issues to be overcome, however, such as what proportion of footprint tiles did a roof need to have to be considered adequately protected? Only an estimated fraction of a percent of tiles have prints of any kind.There was a very interesting discussion circulating on twitter about this very subject in 2016, which has handily been Storifyed and is accessible here.
Much more detailed studies of the footprints themselves are required to support any such theories – is there consistency between the appearance of left and right feet? What age were the children who made the impressions? Does the pattern change chronologically or geographically? Do different prints appear on tiles intended for different uses? Can reconstructive archaeology suggest how much pressure was applied in each case and therefore how deliberate the print was?
Even without conclusive evidence either way – it is clear that something as simple as a child’s footprint in a drying piece of clay can still enthrall us two thousand years on.