The Germanic tribes of Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. left a significant legacy. Their language evolved into modern English, largely replacing indigenous Celtic tongues. Some of their laws formed the basis of English common law. And their feet, it would now appear, formed the basis of modern Englishmen.
Or so says Phyllis Jackson, a retired Gloucestershire podiatrist. Jackson got her first inkling of a distinctively Saxon foot during World War II, when Hereford, the small city in western England where she then lived, was flooded with refugees from more significant cities (which were being bombed by latter-day Germans). Some of these evacuees became Jackson’s patients, and some of them turned out to be of Celtic descent-- Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish. Poor things were coming to me with awful bunions, recalls Jackson. I realized that the foot shape I was dealing with was quite different from the English one I was accustomed to.
Traditional English feet, Jackson says, tend to be broad and somewhat pointed--the toes form a steep angle from the first to the fifth. The Celtic evacuees, in contrast, had toe tips that were almost level with one another, and their feet tended to be longer and slimmer--except for a bulge at the base of the big toe, where bunions form. The English shoe being modeled on the English foot, many of Jackson’s new patients couldn’t cram their feet into that shape of shoe. Hence they developed the bunions.
After retiring from podiatry, Jackson took up amateur archeology but kept her focus on feet. Examining the skeletal remains of a few dozen Saxons and Celts from a sixth-century cemetery in Lechlade, Gloucestershire, she found she could readily tell them apart. It wasn’t just that the Saxons were the ones buried with bronze brooches and amber necklaces--they also had feet shaped like modern English feet. Jackson also found a distinctive feature in the cuboid bone, just beneath the fourth and fifth toes: it was slightly scrunched on one side in Saxon feet, but more square in Celts.
Aside from stimulating people of British descent to take a closer look at their extremities, Jackson’s research--which has not been subjected to formal peer review--may help British archeologists. They have traditionally relied on burial artifacts to distinguish Celtic from Saxon skeletons, thus glossing over the likelihood that some Celts adopted Saxon ways. What she is offering is a possibility of being able to sort out the immigrant from the indigenous population, says archeologist Barry Cunliffe of Oxford. She needs a bigger sample, but she’s spotted differences that are very real and very well worth following up.