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  • Michael Smith

Book Review: Footmarks - A Journey into Our Restless Past, by Jim Leary

Jacket of Footmarks book by Jim Leary

Anyone who has walked an empty path along a chalk ridge, followed some hollow way through a wood or has meandered by a river bank on a lazy summer’s evening will understand what it means to be with those who have walked before.

The central tenet of Jim Leary’s Footmarks is that people have always been, and always will be, on the move, leaving traces behind – faint or otherwise – of a broader life than might at first be apparent.

Whether crossing continents, traversing mountains or taking an ancient wooden causeway through some moss-swelled peaty wetland, people from the past left their mark – a mark of their worldly experience. And people today do likewise.

Hence, while we might exist in the moment, thinking that our world is the world and somehow finite and reassuring, we, like our predecessors, are similarly ignorant trespassers in the inevitable infinity of the passage of time. One day we, like them, will become the ghosts for minds to dwell on too.

The vibrancy of former lives revealed

An archaeology lecturer at the University of York, Jim Leary combines a comprehensive subject knowledge with intense readability to reveal and explain how what people leave behind betrays the vibrancy of their lives.

What becomes clear is that, whether tracking animals by the shore, making pilgrimages to holy places, driving animals along roads, or crossing seas upon fragile craft, the evidence left by people cannot be seen in itself as finite.

A broader exposure to the world

Leary shows that the casual detritus of some former existence is instead a marker of both transience and broader experience. Objects and artefacts are not simply archaeological ‘finds’, they are instead windows on other life experiences. They offer us a chance to touch, all but briefly, the life and movement of some past traveller through the world as they knew it.

Hence, while one interpretation of Suffolk’s Sutton Hoo treasures might suggest they represent the glory and magnificence of an early English leader, another says otherwise. Instead, here was a man with a view to the sea and the world beyond, his funerary gifts incorporating elements from far beyond England or even Europe. A culture rich in the mycelia of international exposure.

People of the past knew worlds both near and far and, as this book makes clear, we are still learning. As Leary reveals, even the so-called “Avebury Archer”, found buried just a few miles from Stonehenge, is shown by scientific analysis to have travelled back to continental Europe and then returned to England before his death.

It is astonishing to think how much he, and his fellow travellers, knew about the world and how to navigate it.

A world on the move

Trackway through ancient woodland

Movement was constant. We learn that roads and lanes didn’t simply exist for one way travel; instead they were the conduit of trade, cultural exchange, religious intent, social intermingling and even essential to the movement of animals.

Trackways are indicative of constant use; going places was – and is – a fact of life.

Even in cities, where we might imagine some element of civilised permanence, visitors from far and wide – whether for purposes of trade, migration or religious devotion – show that movement was constant. And travel broadened the mind.

A route to broader minds

It is the sign of a good book that you leave it with an even greater inquiring mind than when you picked it up. What is immediately evident from reading Footmarks is that the whole history of humanity has been about movement – in small or large steps - and it continues to be.

As John Donne famously wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.


In Jim Leary’s wonderful and highly personal examination of the worlds we leave behind, archaeology reveals much about how we – and our ancestors – are, too, part of the broader main and not individual islands. We too are travellers touched by experience.

With this in mind, we ask ourselves, how would we like to be seen by those who follow in our own transient footmarks? How will others read us?

Michael Smith

Book jacket of Footmarks by Jim Leary

Footmarks - A Journey into Our Restless Past

Author: Jim Leary

Published 2023 by: Icon Books

ISBN: 978-183773-025-4


An attractive feature of the book is a range of linocut illustrations by York printmaker, Michelle Hughes, which really capture the richness and personality of the text.


About Michael Smith

 Book jacket of William and the Werewolf translated by Michael Smith

Michael Smith is a translator and illustrator of medieval literature. His books, including translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and The Romance of William and the Werewolf, are available through all the usual outlets.

For more details of Michael's books and how to purchase signed copies, click here.



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