If you have never been mudlarking before, you’re in for a treat. Most visitors to London, and indeed, even those who live there, have never heard of mudlarking. But this is a tradition that has been around for a very long time, and it allows even the most amateur budding archaeologist to find absolute riches of history buried up and down the River Thames.
The word mudlark used to be quite a derogatory term. In the Victorian era, both children and adults could often be found in London scavenging along the banks of the river. Because the Thames used to be used as a place to dispose of waste, mudlarks would scout around for anything they perceived to be of value to allow them to earn money.
In 1851, British journalist Henry Mayhew wrote about the very real and sad plight of the underclass who were found mudlarking.
“There is a class who may be termed river-finders, although their occupation is connected only with the shore. They are commonly known by the name of ‘mud-larks,’ from being compelled, in order to obtain the articles they seek, to wade sometimes up to their middle through the mud left on the shore by the retiring tide. These poor creatures are certainly about the most deplorable in their appearance of any I have met with in the course of my inquiries.”
Today, mudlarking has taken on very different connotations. Gone are the people clambering around, trying to find items like copper nails or iron to sell. Instead, you will find tour groups and solitary figures crouched along the River Thames, some with metal detectors and some without. They will be seeking out objects that could be hundreds or even thousands of years old. But how can so many artifacts survive for that long in a river?
One very interesting fact about the mud of the Thames is that it is anaerobic, which means it contains no oxygen. This is what allows all of the objects in it to survive, whether it is a Roman nail from thousands of years ago or a Medieval floor tile from a church.
As the Thames is a tidal river, twice each day you have the opportunity to find glorious objects for yourself. There are many spots that you can visit, but one of the best is directly in front of the Tate Modern. If you check ahead of time and plan for tidal conditions, you can bring a bag or bucket and begin searching to see what treasures will be revealed under the rocks in the mud.
It is worthwhile mentioning that in order to use a metal detector you will need to obtain a license, but if your plan is to just move rocks around with your hands and feet to find artifacts you won’t need a license, and most of what you can find is readily and freely available just by glancing at the shore. You may think what you are looking at isn’t necessarily anything old at first as oftentimes you will need to give artifacts a good rinse in the water before the object truly reveals itself, so it’s wise to pick up anything unusual you come across as you never know what it will be.
One of the most common objects a mudlarker will find are clay pipes, usually dating from the 1600 and 1700’s. These will usually not be intact and you will find either the stems or bowls, but occasionally you will find one that is complete. These would have been used once and tossed straight into the Thames afterward, so they are everywhere. Other objects you can find? Tudor tiles, clay-wig curlers, a ton of pottery, broken shards of dishes which could be from Roman times or could also be daintily decorated Victorian fare and ancient jewelry.
Occasionally you may find something like a Mesolithic handaxe dating from 8500BC to 4500BC or a beautiful Bellarmine jug from the sixteenth century that has a Norse-like face on it. There are also quite a lot of coins to be discovered, and you may look down suddenly to find Nero’s face staring back at you.
Once you have collected your goods you can start researching their history. If you’re really curious about something and can’t date it online, take it to the Museum of London, and there they will kindly tell you more about it.
Have you ever been on a mudlarking expedition before? If so, what did you find?
[Featured Image by Oli Scarff/Getty Images]