Mudlarking is an old, very London specific form of amateur archaeology, where people can inspect the shores of the Thames in central London to find artefacts and relics from its long and extensive past. As there are rules, regulations and safety concerns about how this can be done, it is best to join one of the organised tours run by Thames Explorer Trust, who have the required permits and expertise.
A city as old as London has been built layer upon layer of human debris; discarded and lost objects and centuries worth of rubbish - the remains of meals eaten, pipes smoked, crockery smashed, coins lost, buttons broken and buildings crumbled. Two thousand years worth of detritus has fallen into the Thames, washing up every day on its grimy shores at the mercy of the strong estuary tides.
For centuries people have made a living combing this foreshore, one man's rubbish being another man's treasure is no truer than here, where an object dropped by a careless Roman can now be worth its weight in monetary or historical value.
Mudlarking is the ultimate way to get a know the capital city as a Slow Traveller - it forces you to really slow down, take your time and investigate the minutiae of the life of ordinary people from previous centuries. It is a hands on approach to being a visitor and you never know, you may well find something special and join the history books as a contributor to the archaeological knowledge of the city.
The Rules of Mudlarking
1. Visual Inspection Only
There are many rules in place about mudlarking, and it can be easy to fall foul of them. You cannot just go to a Thames beach and start poking around - that in itself is illegal. Even turning over a stone to look underneath is off limits. All you can do is walk along the beach and visually inspect - if you see something on the surface, you can pick it up to have a look. Metal detectors, trowels and spades are all completely forbidden.
2. Some areas are off-limits
There are some areas where you are not allowed to even pick anything up, such as Queenhithe Dock which is a scheduled ancient monument. Once an Anglo-Saxon dock, the remains of which have been found there, it is also where Charles II landed to survey the damage caused by the Great Fire in 1666. Other areas completely off limits, even for those with a permit, include anywhere near HMS Belfast, the London Eye and St. Katherine's Dock. What is rather unhelpful is that there are no signs anywhere telling you where you are not allowed to go.
3. Health & Safety
There are also Health & Safety issues to take into account. The estuary tides can be swift and sudden, and people have been stranded in the past with unfortunate consequences - there are not that many steps or ladders down to the shore. Experts also suggest always wearing waterproof gloves, as although the Thames is far cleaner than it ever used to be, it still contains sewage, and the foreshore where the objects are found is home to rodents of both the scuttling and flying variety.
4. Report Your Finds
The final thing to be aware of is that you must report any significant finds to the Museum of London under the Treasure Act 1996. If you join one of the guided tours then they can help you determine what is potentially significant, otherwise you'll have to be able to work it out yourself. It is also expected that you will leave behind your insignificant finds for other people to find. What will you really do with broken clay pipes and crumbling pottery anyway? It should stay where it belongs. The thrill is the hunt, not the acquisition.
Mudlarking with Thames Explorer Trust
The guided tours run by Thames Explorer are often in the evening, depending on the tides - you can find them all on Eventbrite. You all meet at a specific location on the edge of the Thames - in the case of the tour I went on it was next to the Glass Obelisk under the north end of the Millennium Bridge - an easy spot to find. We were a group of about 14 people, mostly tourists from around the world, including several children, as it is a very child-friendly activity. In fact our guide told us that children often spot the best items as they are closer the ground and have far better eye sight.
We were given a talk about mudlarking, the rules and regulations, health and safety, and then moved on to objects we were likely to find. There are some objects which are very common, such as clay pipes, oyster shells and animal bones. Our guide passed round some of her more impressive finds so we knew what to expect and which would help us with identification of our own.
Then it was down to the foreshore and we were told where we could and couldn't go, then left to wander on our own to see what we could find. It only took us a few minutes to realise that the area we were in was actually all artefacts and that there was very little sand or gravel - we were walking on pipe stems, oyster shells, animal bones and lots and lots of bricks. We swiftly moved from marvelling over clay pipe stems to trying to find a pipe with its bowl still attached, from finding Victorian pottery to trying to find medieval or even Roman pots.
We wandered across the foreshore, eyes becoming attuned to what to look out for, and passed a very pleasant hour as the sun set over the city, heads down and backs bent. Above us we could hear the sounds of office workers relaxing with a drink at the end of the day, loud guffaws and the clinking of glasses the backdrop to our silent search across the shore.
At the end of the session you can take your finds to the guide who will help you identify them, we all gathered around her like excited schoolchildren for our 'show and tell' session. We laid our treasures out on a big rock to take photos, then just left them there to be swallowed up by the next tide, so they could return to their watery resting place.
Objects you may find when Mudlarking
Clay pipes are very common on the shores of the Thames. You are only likely to find the pipe ends rather than the bowl, as they frequently snap. The thinnest ones you find are the oldest, from when tobacco was expensive. As it became more common and cheaper in price, the pipes became bigger as people could afford more tobacco per smoke. Some pipes were sold pre-filled for single use, so would be discarded in the river the way cigarette butts would be in later years.
Oysters were once the food of the poor, rather than the wealthy as they are now. Once consumed, the shells would be thrown away and they form a large part of what you will find. There are many with a square hole in them - the reason for this is still unknown, they were possibly some form of currency but it remains a mystery.
There are a lot of animal bones on the shore, mostly Victorian from when people would eat an animal and throw away the bones. I found some substantial bones from pigs and cows, and even a sheep's jawbone with a full set of teeth. When the Thames was densely populated with barges, before the advent of the trains for goods transportation, barge piers were constructed along the length of the Thames. These were flat bottomed and infilled with rubbish, which is why there are so many bones from Victorian meals.
You will find a wide range of bricks - London bricks as well as traditional red bricks. London has been rebuilt many times over and the remnants of this are all over the shore.
There are huge amounts of pot shards in amongst the rest of the detritus. The thinner the piece is, the newer it is, with most of what you will find being Victorian. It can apparently be quite hard to find Roman pottery - Roman Londinium was a lot smaller than London is now so don't expect to find Roman artefacts in every place you search.
Pottery Guides © Lara Maiklem Mudlarking
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