Subfossil mammalian tracks (Flandrian) in the Severn Estuary, S. W. Britain: mechanics of formation, preservation and distribution

J. R. L. Allen


Mammalian tracks and trackways are widely preserved at all stratigraphical levels in the Flandrian sediments of tidal mudflat and marsh origins which formed over the last 8000–9000 years on the marginal wetlands of the inner Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. The fauna recorded in this way, however, is less diverse than that known from the few, small assemblages of skeletal remains, including some from archaeological sites, so far assessed. Missing or rarely represented in terms of tracks are the smaller of the large mammals. Humans are represented by tracks throughout the Flandrian deposits. In the earlier Flandrian, they were accompanied by deer and aurochs which gave way, in the later Flandrian, to domesticated cattle and sheep/goat; there are sporadic indications of the presence of horse. Wolf/dog, represented by just two records, is the only smaller large mammal so far recorded as a track.

The tracks were made, modified, and eventually preserved under a wide variety of sedimentological conditions on the margins of the estuary. Those environmental conditions constrained the quality of the anatomical evidence preserved in the tracks but can be inferred from the character of the tracks. Field experiments suggest that the moisture content of the sediment at the time was crucial to the general nature of the tracks. The mudflat–marsh silts which received the tracks varied from semi–liquid to firm, depending on tidal and seasonal factors and on the elevation of the sedimentary surface relative to the tidal frame. Some tracks were made in marsh peats which offered little resistance. Deep tracks preserving little detail were produced in weak sediments of high moisture content; tracks formed in strong, firm muds retained full anatomical detail. Referring to mechanical theory, and to a series of laboratory experiments using plasticine, the act of making a track is shown to be similar in character and effect to the indentation of an ideal elastic–plastic material by a punch. The punch represents the descending limb of the animal, the face of the punch the sole of the animal's foot, and the elastic–plastic material the sediment which is pierced and deformed by the downward action of the limb. The character of the experimental tracks, and the range and relative size of the deformation structures they include, is qualitatively similar to what is recorded from the field. Many of the tracks recorded from the field were variously modified in a changeable and dynamic environment before final burial and preservation.