Blanche Parry

Discover the history

in your feet

This month our local historian Ruth E. Richardson has some fascinating findings from feet

'What a lovely baby – just like his/her, Mummy or Daddy' we say and we chat about hair colour, nose shape, height and so on. We expect to find characteristics from parents and families. What we often miss are the baby's feet but these too are inherited and they can tell a great deal about the origins of these families.

The world's first foot–archaeologist was Phyllis Jackson, a chiropodist (podiatrist) who worked in Hereford for 25 years and then in the remote Cotswolds. Phyllis noticed that evacuees sent to Hereford to avoid bombing raids on English towns during World War Two often had unexpected foot shapes. She was surprised to find many suffered from bunions.

What she discovered was two significant categories of foot–shape. The first is the English, or Saxon foot which tends to be broad with toes sloping steeply from the big toe, the longest, to the little toe. This foot shape is used by most shoe manufacturers. This is unfortunate for those with the more slender Celtic foot shape. Here the big toe, second and third toes can be in a line, or the second toe is the longest with the other toes sloping from it to the little toe. Either way, the big toe is not the longest and so if shoes are measured from this toe all the other toes become cramped causing corns and those bunions. Yes, many English evacuees' feet showed Scottish, Irish, Welsh or Cornish descent and so they had bunions! So have Herefordians. (Have you taken your shoes off yet?)

Phyllis was an expert. The English or Saxon foot is sometimes called the Egyptian foot as ancient Egyptian paintings show this shape – though figures had two left feet! The Celtic foot is also called the Greek foot, because it is usual on Greek statues, or Morton's foot, after the USA doctor who noticed it in the 1930s. However, Phyllis found other diagnostic bones in the foot, particuarly the cuboid bone on the outside of the foot between the heel–bone and little toe.

When she retired after half a century of observation, she extended her research by examining ancient bones. In the Saxon cemetery in Lechlade, Gloucestershire, archaeologists excavated skeletons with, and some without, jewellery. Without knowing which–was–which Phyllis identified Saxons, who had brooches, from local Celtic people who had no adornment. It was a blind–test which she passed successfully. Although her method worked, DNA became more available. However, once you know what to look for it is so tempting to check feet – even on statues.

Ancient statues of Roman Emperors such Augustus, Tiberius and Constantine have Celtic feet, as does the modern USA Statue of Liberty. Constantine's colossal, seated, statue, was 12 metres (40ft.) high. His brick and wood torso were destroyed for the gilded bronze covering. Only his 2½ metre marble head, a hand, parts of his limbs and his 2 metre long Celtic foot survive. Perhaps he inherited this foot shape from his mother who, by tradition, was British.

To read more of Phyllis Jackson's research see:

©Ruth E. Richardson 2014

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