Monday, 3 December 2007

Toenails in Archaeology

I've got one of those pairs of nail clippers that has a little plastic reservoir that catches the clippings. The sort of thing offered free with an order from Damart and which nobody expects to use. Except they're actually rather good, especially when you've reached the age when your toenails are so hard that the clippings ping off and become impaled in the curtains, to be found long after like needles from a Christmas tree. (There are rocks in the north of Scotland so compressed in the Ice Age that if you hit them with a hammer, the fragments embed themselves in your forehead in a sudden release of pent-up energy).

I've been wondering how our forebears cut their toenails. I mean before the age of effective scissors. They could have bitten their finger nails, but not their toenails. Did they bite each other's, like superstitious mothers once did for their children, believing that if an infant's nails were cut before it was a year old it would become a thief?

I can't find any helpful archaeological references. The evidence from bog people and mummies seems a bit inconclusive. Coastal erosion has recently revealed footprints of humans and animals preserved in late Holocene silt at Formby Point on Merseyside. Optically-stimulated luminescence dating (that sounds worth trying) indicates that they are late-Mesolithic to mid-Neolithic in origin. At least one set of prints - those of a young man - show the drag marks of long, uncut toenails.

But maybe that's just Merseyside for you.

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