Friday 9 October 2015

Mudlarks on the Foreshore by Caroline Lawrence

FORESHORE - the part of a shore between high- and low- water marks, or between the water and cultivated or developed land.

MUDLARK - a person who scavenges in river mud for objects of value

NOTICE: Aimed at young archaeologists, on this walk you'll discover the archaeology of the waterfront from its Roman origins to the Victorian period, with Museum of London Archaeology specialists - pick up artefacts and have them identified by the experts! Walk leaders: Alan Pipe & Nigel Jeffries of Thames Discovery. Meeting Point: Stairs below north end of the Millennium Bridge, Paul's Walk, EC4 

Last month I met twenty other adults and children at Trig Lane near the Millennium Bridge for an hour long guided wander on the foreshore of the Thames. After a short introduction by Alan Pipe and Nigel Jeffries of Thames Discovery, Museum of London, we went carefully down narrow concrete stairs to the foreshore.

I have lived in London nearly forty years and in a riverside flat for the past fifteen but this was my first time on the foreshore. I am astounded to see the amount of archaeological debris covering the shore. Alan and Nigel hand out plastic gloves to protect our hands from Rat Urine Disease and plastic bags to put our finds in. British law says you can keep anything you find, spotted 'eyes only'.

'Although the Thames foreshore is an amorphous splurge because of the churning and the tides,' explains Nigel, the medieval expert, 'there are lots of different interesting strands of evidence that you can tease out of it…' So let's tease out some strands:

1. The first strand is rocks and stones. London has no stone to speak of, mainly clay, sand and gravel, but you can still see chunks of imported Kentish ragstone, worked and unworked gemstones (!) and heating stones, used for boiling water but only re-usable a few times before they crack and have to be thrown out. You can find imported chalk and also flint, prehistoric man's favourite material for make tools.
STAR STONE OBJECT: a complete Neolithic flint scraper found by an American teenage student on the foreshore in front of the Tower of London on one of these Thames Discovery walks at the beginning of this summer (2015).

2. The second strand of finds are metal tools and artefacts. Of course the famous Battersea Shield and Waterloo Shield (now on show at the British Museum Celts Exhibition) were both found in the Thames, but a mudlark can find lots of other goodies. These include bronze brooches, iron nails, gold thimbles, brass Hindu river tokens, gold rings, brass parts of Victorian oil-lamps, Medieval shoe buckles, lead cloth seals from the 17th century and many different types of coins.
STAR METAL OBJECT: set of car keys (above), possibly from a Vauxhall Cavalier

3. Glass. Lots of glass fragments but also whole items including marbles. Nigel once found bottles of wine with corks and Madeira wine still in them.
STAR GLASS OBJECT: trade beads like the ones used to buy Manhattan. (Found on previous occasions)

4. Pottery. Alan tells us that the most common type of pottery is a plain white glazed material used for chamberpots, bowls, plates, etc. They are mainly British made from Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire from the late 18th and early 19th century. You also find loads of pieces of pottery coloured by the transfer method. Chinese style prints popular imitating much more expensive Chinese imports. You get mass-produced 20th century pottery but can also find much much older pieces including late-medieval and even Roman.
STAR POTTERY OBJECT: Victorian fragment in blue and white

5. Bones. Unlike pottery, which can be dated by ornamentation, type of clay and manufacturer's marks, bone does not reveal much about its provenance. Pieces of bone could come from anywhere. But bones can tell us what species are being consumed and which parts of them are popular. 'What you're seeing here,' says bone-expert Alan Pipe, 'is a snapshot over centuries of waste disposal arising from consumption of animal and bird species that people still eat. Some of is personal consumption for meals,  a lot of it is coming from butchery waste from butchers' shops where carcasses are being prepared and a little of it will be coming from further back in the process where the animals are being slaughtered and then their carcasses being trimmed before they go to be butchered and then consumed.' But some of the bones are from non-edible animals like dogs, cats and horses. What did you do when a domestic animal died? You threw it in the Thames. We have even found human bones. 

'Many of the bones we find on the foreshore have be modified in some way, either by saw cuts or by cleaver cuts or by knife cuts. This reflects the way the carcasses were cut up to produce manageable joints for cooking. That kind of technology changes over time and location.' Other tool marks are not necessarily linked to butchery. One shoulder blade of a young calf shows a hole where it was hung on a butcher's hook. In the days before plastic, bone was worked to make buttons, dominoes, inlays and knife handles. 
STAR BONE OBJECT: A bone hairpin from the Roman era showing a woman with a Flavian hairdo. (Found a few years ago and now on display in the Museum of London.)

6. Shells. You see masses of oyster shells on the beach. You might also find mussels, cockles, winkles and whelks, but they are not as common as oysters. This is because for centuries oysters were poor people's food and even street food. 'It's only when you get well into the 1800's with the buildup of pollution contaminating the oyster beds around the estuary that oysters started to become rarer and more expensive.' A piece of shell from a Chinese mitten crab (so-called because of mitten like claws) shows us how the ecology of the river is changing. This freshwater species was an accidental introduction into Western Europe and Britain, probably reaching England in ballast tanks on ships. They are a burrowing species and can cause riverbanks to collapse. You would not have seen them before the 1920s, but now they are established.
STAR SHELL OBJECT: A piece of abalone shell, possibly from California.

7. Clay pipes. There are so many of these that they deserve their own strand. We all know Sir Walter Raleigh brought tobacco to England but did you know that it was first used medicinally? And that the millions of white clay pipes are modelled on wooden versions used by Native Americans?
STAR CLAY PIPE: A so-called fairy pipe spotted on the London Mudlark Facebook page which tells you that If you're looking for one of the really early tobacco pipes, this is the size you're looking for - small because tobacco was expensive when it was first imported at the end of the 16th century. It also explains whey they are also known as 'fairy pipes.'

The London Mudlark Facebook page also sets down some rules and guidelines for Mudlarking, including: Anything made of precious metal (gold or silver) and over 300 years old (not including coins unless they are found in a hoard) must by law be reported as Treasure Trove. It will then be assessed by the coroner and offered to various museums who have the right to buy it. If they choose to buy it the finder gets half the value and the land owner will get the other half. The process can take a while, sometimes years*… And: You can collect surface finds, spotted eyes only without a license.

NB As of November 2016 EVERYBODY needs a permit to go down on the foreshore and look for goodies: Check PLA's site HERE

Happy Mudlarking!

*Read the exact terms of Treasure Trove HERE.

Caroline Lawrence is currently working on a series of books for kids set in Roman Britain including Londinium. The Roman Quests 1: Escape from Rome is out May 2016. 


Joan Lennon said...

I want to do that! Thanks for the useful breakdown, Caroline!

Clare Mulley said...

I am definitely going to do this too, with my three daughters. Tank you for the prompt.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...


Becca McCallum said...

I've always wanted to do this whenever I've been in London, but never had the chance. When I was younger, I was always looking for stuff on the beach or by the riverbanks, and I probably still have a box of old china pieces somewhere in the attic. Thanks for the review of the guided tour - it sounds like the best introduction to a fascinating hobby!