Maryland Heritage Scholar Henry M. Miller, Ph.D., recalls walking the muddy shore of the Thames in October 2016 with author Lara Maiklem. A modern day pundit, Maiklem had agreed to take Miller through the mud – scouring the river bed for treasures buried in centuries of underwater detritus.
A dirty job? Yes, but exciting for Miller, an American historical archaeologist, who was stalking the riverbed of this southern England estuary with Maiklem to create a comparative collection of known London artifacts for archaeological analysis of early American sites .
Sifting through the trash in the Thames may seem distasteful to some, but doing so is almost guaranteed to find a curious and possibly valuable artifact. Discovering a piece of Roman pottery, a tobacco pipe from the 1650s, or a small, well-preserved wax seal from the time of King Richard III is exactly the kind of thing that keeps mudlarkers in the mud.
“It’s the excitement,” says Miller. “You never know what you’re going to find. It’s like all archeology, it’s the thrill of discovery. What will I find next and what will it tell me about people from the past? That’s an exciting thing.”
What is mudlarking?
If you’ve never heard of mudlarking, you’re not alone. “People don’t even know what the word means because only a very select group actually use it,” Miller says. Mudlarking basically consists of digging in a river bed in search of lost and forgotten objects.
The concept originated in the 18th or 19th century and referred to a time when low-income people – including children – would crawl along the shore of the Thames at low tide to pick up, says Miller, “nails or lumps of coal or the occasional coin – anything they could sell for food.”
There was a lot to find there. For thousands of years, the Thames served as a dumping ground. “People would dump their daily garbage in the river and the tide would distribute it and it would basically disappear from sight,” Miller says. “It was unpleasant, especially as the population of London grew and the Thames became more and more affected.”
In fact, 60 years ago the River Thames was so polluted from centuries of spillage that it was declared dead. Fortunately, efforts were made during the 20th century to clean up the river and it is now considered one of the cleanest rivers in the world. But its polluted past has made it one of the best places to go mudlarking. The River Thames contains literally thousands of years of waste from the prehistoric era to the present day. As the old saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. Mudlarkers can unearth a host of interesting artifacts, including Venetian glass chevron beads, Tudor piggy banks, medieval pewter pilgrim badges and 16th century shoes.
Throwing all that bric-a-brac into the Thames certainly made it go away, but it didn’t really go away. It settled in the mud at the bottom of the river. “And what’s cool,” adds Miller, “is that there’s an anaerobic condition that means things like wood, bone, cloth, and leather sometimes survive in a pretty pristine state.” More durable materials like pottery, nails, tobacco pipes, and glass bottles turn around a bit, but can also stay in great shape. “I found the cork of a wine bottle probably from the late 1700s with the cork still intact,” he says.
What makes the Thames ideal for Mudlarking?
The tides of the Thames create the perfect storm to dig up artifacts that many other waterways don’t have. For starters, its tide has a surprisingly wide range. It can rise and fall up to 15 to 24 feet (about 4 to 7 meters), two low tides and two high tides each day, leaving behind a wide swath of exposed river bottom. “Here along the Chesapeake or along the Hudson, you have tidal action, but it’s relatively weak,” says Miller. “Here, there is no more than a meter [0.91 meters] in most of the cases.”
The Thames tide also comes in quickly – over 5 miles per hour (8 kilometers per hour). This allows the current to scour the riverbed and push a veritable treasure trove of valuables to shore where they are left as the tide recedes.
Can anyone Mudlark?
Of course, technically you can mudlark the banks of any river in the world, but if you want to travel to England and mudlark the Thames – or even walk the muddy tidal zone without getting your hands wet – you’d better get a permit from the Port of London Authority first. This process takes at least four weeks and costs around £35 ($43) per day for a standard license. With this permit, you will only be able to dig about 3 inches (7.5 centimeters) into the mud, and you will need to replace the soil you disturb to help preserve the food chain for the river creatures.
The protection of the natural and agricultural resources of the foreshore and the safety of the larmans are of the utmost importance; therefore there are areas where digging is not allowed. Restricted areas include the shoreline along the Tower of London and Queenhithe, an ancient Roman wharf which was later developed by Saxon King Alfred the Great in the 700s.
No permit is required for mudlark in the United States. You can find items of interest, but you won’t find the quantity, and very rarely the quality that you can find along the Thames. “We unfortunately don’t have massive amounts of Roman artifacts on display here,” Miller laughs.
Regardless of where you mudlark, you can most likely overlook a valuable artifact like junk or mistake a worthless piece of debris for valuable treasure. In other words, finding lost treasures requires a trained eye and a good working knowledge of antiquing.
Do you remember that wine bottle stopper that Miller had the pleasure of finding during his excursion in the Thames? Some may have assumed it was a trash can. But Miller knew it was from the late 1700s because of the cap style. “On handmade bottles [from that time] there is a piece of glass applied just below the opening at the top called a string edge. This is where they tie a rope or wire to hold the cork in place. The style has changed over time. So knowing the style of the rope edge, that’s how I was able to date the wine cork,” he says.
If you find something and are curious about its value, contact your state archaeologist or an archaeologist at your local college or university.
Can you keep what you collect?
If you think mudlarking has the potential to be a get-rich-quick scheme, you’re wrong. In England, your mudlark permit allows you access to the collection, but it also explicitly says that when you find materials that may be of value, you must give them to an authority for appraisal. “England has a treasure law on things like gold or silver or something like a full Roman sword – things that are really rare – because it’s the property of the English people,” says Miller.
In England, that authority is a Finds Liaison Officer, who has access to experts who can help identify what a found item is. These objects are also registered in the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a British Museum project to keep track of all historical artefacts found in the River Thames and other locations in the UK.
If someone finds something of great value, museums have the right to purchase the object, for which the researcher would be compensated, Miller says. However, many of the objects found, such as “tobacco pipes, bottle fragments, a pig’s jawbone, a specimen of medieval pottery or a thimble”, he says, “are so common and these household debris that [museums] already have thousands or millions of these specimens in their collection. » Once the item is examined and deemed not to be treasure, the slime puddler may take possession of it.
However, the rules are not as strict in the United States. But that doesn’t mean you can pocket something that looks valuable. “As an archaeologist, I must point out that for exceptionally rare things that are part of our collective history, it would be really appropriate to let the state historical trust or the archaeologist know,” Miller said.