Mudlarks Scour the Thames to Uncover 2,000 Years of Secrets

From ribald tokens from London’s Roman past to hints of the Mayflower’s fate, mudlarks discover the story of a constantly changing London — but only at low tide.

Comments: 89

  1. I have plodded along the bank near the High Street in Putney, and it is quite an experience. The smells of any river are redolent of what the water has carried, and what the accumulation of time in the mud speaks of. I can't escape thinking of all the lives that have been involved with that river and its banks. That's one of the magic elements for me. Just imagining the people who had escaped the fire, endured (or not) the Plague, the various political and economic vagaries throughout all the years, and have left a trace of their existence in that mud and water. I grew up in the Chicago area, and there is a creek near my house that we would play in and around. It was polluted, so badly that we'd sometimes find what we called "Salt Creek Whitefish" floating by us in our plastic tub-boats. Probably the Trojan brand. But despite the horrors of the very real threat of infection and worse, I still enjoyed being there, and would find things that told me of previous lives. Bottles, metal rusting away, crockery. But along the Thames, these finds could go back centuries, and they were just right THERE. Bend down and pick up a connection to someone's life that was generations ago. I've found clay pipes, bits of dish ware, a teaspoon engraved with George V... coins and bits and bobs. Treasure to me.

  2. Haha. Seriously. Haha. We used to call them “Coney Island Whitefish!!”

  3. @prufrock I completely agree with every one of the sentiments you express here. Treasure to me -- exactly right. But I want to mention again, to Americans, that in addition to obtaining the foreshore permit (which allows you to look around and pick things up), if you want to bring your discoveries home with you, you have to get their removal from Britain approved by the proper authorities. They want to make sure people aren't bringing home things of archeological value, which I think is very fair.

  4. Thanks for the article. I'd heard of the mudlarks and tried that variety of "treasure hunting". But not many places in the U.S. where the tides are so substantial on a river so important. My concern for the Thames Mudlarks would be un-exploded arsenal. I've seen this in Hawaii were WW II naval mines turn up on the beach. Quite the scary sight!

  5. @Tortuga This is a very common experience. Many times they come across .303 and sometimes 20mm. from WWII . The Battle or Briton was waged over the sky's of London. Large ordinance is very rare and not found by Mudlarks. 500 lb bombs and larger would have buried themselves deep in the ground. The last one I heard of being found in the river was when there was a very prolonged drought and the river fell to lows that hadn't been seen in decades.

  6. @Tortuga I exploded bombs are regularly discovered in London but it’s normally while dredging the river or on construction sites. If you are interested then this map shows the bombs dropped on London during the Battle of Britain from 1940 to 1941 http://bombsight.org/# Try zooming out on the map

  7. I used to live in London about 20 years ago and my one regret was not being able to do this. I could not find a safe area to go and none of my British friends thought this was an attractive hobby. I guess when you are surrounded by ancient buildings and artifacts you take it for granted.

  8. @hilliard yes you are right Hilliard. I’m a Londoner born and bred, surrounded by 100s of years of history that I just don’t see. I used to work in a modern building next to an old church. It was hundreds of years old, but I didn’t appreciate it until we had colleagues from China visit us. They loved the old building and the history surrounding it, and I hadn’t even realise it was there

  9. This article did not mention Maiklem's excellent memoir, "Mudlarking", out late last year. In addition to her personal history as a collector, the book discusses the history of settlements along the Thames and what she's found in various locations. It's a fascinating look at English history from a different viewpoint.

  10. @Eme The American edition is called "Mudlark". Great book but no illustrations of finds. The British edition apparently has a color photo section.

  11. If readers are interested in this they should watch the British "Time Team" episodes on Amazon Prime.

  12. @Julian , Or You Tube without a subscription! An excellent program with over 200 episodes.

  13. I don't really get the appeal. I understand why the Victorian poor did it--income. But today? So what if one finds a pottery shard or half a clay pipe or a commemorative spoon? Yes, people have been dropping things and throwing out junk in the Thames for centuries. It was a veritable town dump. We're not learning anything we didn't know already and one is scrounging about in the mud. For trash, loose change and bits and bobs.

  14. The thrill of the find and nothing more. People hunting are not treasure hunters as there are probably more profitable locations, but finding something from hundreds of years ago is thrilling. To think someone handled that piece and lived life generations ago is really mind boggling.

  15. Completely agree. And I’d have to say, I’m a little bit jealous of their ability to do that. Here in Chicago, the only things of value I have ever found on the shores of Lake Michigan were two slightly damaged but still usable pairs of Ray-Ban sunglasses. Which, of course I kept lol

  16. @Laurence Bachmann Actually one of the mudlarks has an art business. All of the art is from her finds. She has a youtube channel and when she finds things she researches where the items came from. Why do people collect stamps,coins,cars ? It is the same. The wish to find that small piece of history. From they you describe it as junk you probably will never really understand.

  17. In 1000 years, even 100 years, our garbage landfills will no doubt be treasure troves for archaeologists. After all, as the article says, almost everything the mudlarks find was once cast off as garbage. Think of the loss to the British Museum if the early British and Romans recycled. Perhaps we should consider that before turning every plastic bottle into a park bench? Very interesting article. Thank you.

  18. The purpose of those "spintria" is easy enough to figure out. It's like the number you take when you're in line for service at the deli.

  19. @Rea Tarr No. I think it's an early version of the multi-pass.

  20. Whenever I visit London, I mudlark on the foreshore of the Thames near the Tate Museum. It's thrilling to find centuries old objects, that even after all these 100's of years still appear. An excellent book on the subject that captures the thrill is 'London in Fragments:A Mudlark's Treasures' by Ted Sandling.

  21. There isn't any mystery around Spintria, Michael Palin on his show on Rome mentioned them. The Roman empire was vast, the people there spoke many languages, and in the Roman Empire there were a plethora of brothels and sex workers in any region to cater to the Roman Legions who were on occupation duty or working on something like roads or aqueducts, plus Roman citizens, especially empire functionaries, would travel. The coins were typical Roman ingenuity, on the one side was the sex act they wanted (and yep, very little new under the sun) and the other was the agreed upon value. The only unknown was whether the spintria were simply used as a kind of flash card, or if they were purchased for the agreed upon price on the token and were used like a gift card (presumably the person providing the service would be able to exchange them for local currency or even be able to use it to buy things). One theory, backed up by some evidence, is that the tokens were produced and sold by banks and they would be the ones taking them back and then selling them again. One of the things I love about the British is that they tend to have people who love things like this. Surprised with the regulation of mudlarks the ministry of silly walks isn't involved....

  22. @music observer I think that the brothers owners would not let the workers, probably slaves, handle money. So the token was purchased by the "John," and handed to the worker. In 19th Century America, they were known as brass checks.

  23. @music observer.... In response to your observation, sir, that the Ministry of Silly Walks wasn't involved, I have to inform you, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, that this particular ministry has been disbanded, and replaced by the Ministry for Incredibly Stupid Haircuts, as exemplified by the tonsorial disaster adorning our own Dear Leader, Mr Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

  24. @music observer I'm not sure other countries would admire the British and their inclination to 'love things like this'. In their day, the British colonial armies scoured the earth and brought back many priceless pieces of history as war booty - Elgin Marbles (Greece) and Benin Bronzes (Nigeria) to name just two. And to this day, the British Museum has refused to return these stolen goods back to the rightful owners. As Brexit has exposed to all, there is a lot of rosy-eyed nostalgia within Britain for the wealth/vigor of their 'swashbuckling' Empire days but little acknowledgement that they achieved this by subjugating ill-armed native peoples and stealing their material and cultural wealth.

  25. The queen owns the Thames River? All of it? So, if she wanted, could she charge people to cross the river or boat on it? Or could she just ban people from using it in any way?

  26. @Locho no she wouldn’t and couldn’t. It simply protects the environment from unwanted development. Let’s face it, if the Crown didn’t “own” it then it would be owned by developers

  27. @Locho No, but she owns all the swans.

  28. True. And so they are protected.

  29. Fascinating hobby and article. I wish the picture had been captioned with brief descriptions of what is pictured. Specifically the 3rd object from the left looks like it has teeth in it. Could it be part of an animal jawbone? Too big to be human.

  30. @lb Mudlarkers find loads of bones and teeth, even human skulls! Those need to be reported.

  31. @lb --I thought that perhaps that was a brush of some sort???

  32. Looks a little like the jaw of a small goat similar to one I found on a Greek Island, only mine is bleached white from the Greek sun.

  33. It will be interesting to know what Mud larks will discover about us say two hundred years in the future. Will they find the remains of Boris Johnson's barber who committed suicide or perhaps Queen Elizabeth's hat? Or perhaps just a lot of polluting garbage.

  34. @just Robert Lots of plastic bottles.

  35. Lara Maiklem’s book “Mudlarking” was read on BBC Radio 4 several months ago and it was a fascinating listen and added a new word to my vocabulary. I got the book afterwards - a really great read and always satisfying to learn about an activity that I I had been completely unaware of.

  36. Not only an interesting hobby, but after Brexit, possibly one of few remaining occupations.

  37. @Marat1784... politics 24/7...God, give it a break.

  38. I think we’ll get by thank you. It wasn’t a good idea but the perils have been grossly understated - notably in the NYT.

  39. @Marat1784 Made my day! And by somebody stabbed at his desk all those years ago.

  40. I have been following the social media accounts of several of these mudlarkers for some time now. It is super interesting what they find. We have a similiar activity here in the Bay Area of San Francisco. We go to Tepco or tea cup beach and pull the leavings of an old industrial tile and pottery works from the mud. My mother found an intact tea cup blank that had not been glazed on her very first foray. There is just something so fun about being out in nature and dreaming of the ancestors. Thank you for the article!

  41. @Kleier planning a trip to the Bay Area, so thank you for the tip! Here in NYC (Brooklyn), we have Dead Horse Bay/Bottle Beach, well worth a visit.

  42. I have been walking alongside the Puget Sound at low tide (and believe me the low tides at Puget Sound are very low) for 17 years. The most interesting items I find are shells of Dungeness crabs. Maybe I'm not doing it right.

  43. @Spartan In the estuaries of the Oregon coast there are still remains of fishing weirs, where people would make a stick fence in the mud at creek outlets so it was just above low tide water and just below high tide water. When the fish would get trapped as the tide went down, they could be netted or speared. The anaerobic environment of the tidal mud preserves these for hundreds of years.

  44. The appeal of this hobby is clear--in San Francisco we have unearthed Civil War era bullets, crockery and utensils, as well as apothecary bottles with 1873 stamped in the glass and the name of a long gone pharmacy as well as the head and body from Chinese porcelain doll--and that's just in the backyard!

  45. Wondering if there are mudlarks checking out the Tiber, the Nike, and the Bosphorus...

  46. @Liz The Nike? All they would find are shoes.

  47. I do this on the banks of Stones River where I collect beautiful old bottles and milk glass cosmetics jars. I had no idea it was a real hobby! Nice to know I’m not alone in the world.

  48. Twenty years ago we were having power plowed into our area and since much of it crossed Forest Service land the forest archaeologist was called in. We met on a knoll overlooking a meadow and small creek. "A perfect place for for a native settlement" said Mark. Indeed as they used to grow sacred tobacco in the meadow. "Yup" he said. He reached down into the gravel of the road that ran through the spot now and, at my feet, came up with a stone arrowhead. You just never know.

  49. I'm really glad to see that amateur enthusiasts are collaborating with scientists and museums to report findings. The common "finder's keepers" ethic that mostly animates the public's romance with archaeology is not helpful in strengthening the value of heritage, conservation, and a sense of place. In the United States these conflicting ethics of ownership are especially harmful to many indigenous descendants whose heritage is looted and vandalized daily, mostly by well-meaning and under-informed people who have fascination and respect for native culture! The remains of material human culture give a certain power to the landscape that hosts them, and it's in all of our interest to make sure that collecting them is done carefully in the name of science, stewardship, and heritage.

  50. I am hoping for a show akin to "The Detectorists".

  51. My daughter's year 6 class volunteered one Saturday last year to help count the number of wet wipes per square metre embedded in the mud near Hammersmith. Shocking result. Sometthing you never forget. Not well understood that the sewage system often floods when there's more rain than it can handle, overflowing lnto the river. They're working hard now to modernise the system but we all need to be aware of the impact of flushing the wrong stuff down the loo!

  52. Mudlarking is delightful, but involved. I am an American and I made got a foreshore permit a couple of years ago before I went to London. You have to apply in advance, and the police do ask for them if they see people down on the foreshore obviously looking around. Then, if you do not reside in the U.K. and want to take your finds home with you, you have a much more involved process of getting designated archeologists to approve their removal from the country. You have to fill out an application, with pictures, in triplicate. They will let you take bits of pottery but not anything of historic value. I had to leave my finds, labelled, in a box at a local Pack and Send when I left the country; when they received the permit (everything got approved), they sent the box on to me. I suppose you could try to smuggle it out in your luggage, but I wouldn't be comfortable doing that -- it's their heritage, after all, and we need to be respectful. Also it's illegal. The approval process was a rigamarole, maybe even more so for someone who's not a lawyer like me, but the mudlarking was fun. The Pack and Send people also kind of liked the novelty of it, I think. I had to stop by the shop 2 or 3 times to get everything sorted. "It's my mudlarker!" the man behind the counter would call when I walked in.

  53. @ED you are wise to caution the casual discoverer about Customs formalities involving antiquities. Believe it or not, anything obviously ancient that one attempts to bring into the commerce of the USA needs to be formally entered and its provenance must be very clear or it may be subject to seizure. The Customs regulations apply to anything very old, regardless of whether one bought it online from an auction house or maybe picked it up on a walk through the Acropolis...

  54. Re England's laws regarding removal of treasure: I love rocks -- always have. Brought home a miniature Rock of Gibraltar once from Santorini, and my dad seized it for his own, it was such a beauty. (Now, alas, I have it back.) Found a perfect, ornately striated, middlin'-sized rock at Kynance Cove, in Cornwall, around 2005. Had always wanted to visit Kynance Cove, the setting of a favorite kids' book. I put the rock in my duffle, checked the duffle to fly home, but when I got home it was gone. Faery magic? The Little People wanted their rock back? Or Customs?

  55. I've been following Mudlarkers on Youtube for a while, and they find some really cool historical items. Unfortunately, some of them find human remains.

  56. I found pieces of pipe and a horse tooth underneath the Globe theatre and my sister brought them into her English class to show them around... not « treasures » but treasures to us!

  57. I suppose I've come across 20 explanations for the Spintriae. As with many things unexplained, it's the mystery of the never really knowing that's the best part. P.S. - Of all the theories, the one posted below in the comments by a gentleman named Arthur makes the most sense to me.

  58. Great fun, but it can be dangerous.

  59. Only the English, entitled class, would come up with the name/description Mudlarks. I can just hear the centuries-old laughter.

  60. For heaven's sake, can't you leave off the class-antagonism stuff long enough to enjoy a story about people interested enough in history to go sloshing through the muck?

  61. @ Perert. The term “mudlark” has been in use since at least the late 18th Century. It referred to the very poor children who scavenged the banks of the Thames for items to sell, and lived under the shelter of bridges on the banks of the river. A class-based term, yes, but, in my opinion, a nicer one than most common alternatives. (Per Wikipedia, the term was also known to be used as a euphemism for a pig.)

  62. Having spent time in London many years ago and having heard of and seen the mudlarks, I went looking for similar riparian ephemera back in New Castle, Delaware. While not as ancient a settlement as Londinium, New Castle's environs permit one to find colonial-era artifacts along the Delaware River walk at low tide in abundance.

  63. Here in the US, in addition to old toy buckets and similar, Ive found 90 year old bottles, an almost perfect clay pipe, and a cannonball, to name just a few.

  64. A few weeks ago I watched Juelz Tours, a young man who gives guided tours of London and post them on YouTube. In one episode he met with treasure hunters as they explored the waterfront and then he went in a waterfront bar named The Mayflower, supposedly part of the structure was built from salvaged timbers from the Mayflower. Good story but no real way to know if it's true.

  65. I've been passionate about history all my life. I recognize the importance of archaeological finds to our understanding of history. Nevertheless, to sentence somebody to ten years for digging up a hoard of coins or other objects is incredible. Real overkill by a state that supposedly values the individual human being.

  66. @Jon Harrison By selling that hoard of coins they stole that history from 66 Million people, 10 years(5 or less in reality) is a fair sentence for that.

  67. @Jon Harrison This was a multi-million pound theft from the nation and they never came clean or gave back what they stole. The aggrevating factors pushed up the sentence - this was not a quickly remedied oversight over pocketing a few coins.

  68. @Jon Harrison My guess would be the sentence was not for digging up the coins, but for not reporting the find (which they were legally obligated to do)

  69. Several years ago a friend told me that there had once been and Indian settlement along a small river that runs through her property. She took me for a look and she pointed out the main roadway, the rough foundations of housing, and arrow heads and various tools all over place. We would pick things up and then carefully replace them. The site is on a list to be excavated and studied some day, but their are hundreds of sites in the state.

  70. What is not mentioned here is that the foreshore has been transformed over the last few years - and not for the better. Most of it used to be covered in mud, but the commercial river buses (Clippers) create so much wash that the mud has been washed away. What only a few years ago was acres of thick, oozing mud that was impossible to walk on - but perfect feeding ground for wading birds - is now a jumble of rocks, old wood and fragments of Londons history. Mudlarking has become incredibly popular because of the environmental damage that is revealing the past. A age old natural habitat snaking through the capital has disappeared in a two decades and it barely draws comment.

  71. @Richard Actually, getting rid of the mud is the sign of a healthier river environment. Exposed gravel beds are prime spawning grounds for trout, salmon, and other species. Not to mention places where invertebrates like crawfish and freshwater shrimp can hide and flourish.

  72. Here in Charleston we practice the same fascinating hobby after a rainstorm which can bring all manner of buried treasure up in downtown gardens. Before a trip to London years ago I'd read Thames:Sacred River by Peter Ackroyd. Highly recommended!

  73. And all his other books too.

  74. Has the DMDC ever worked the river?

  75. I love this article. I’ve been lucky enough to visit London many times in my life, and every time I can I go mudlarking. I bring my bags of treasures (not “real” treasures, just treasures to me) with me every time I go back to college. I love those pieces of clay pipes that are truly so common - who were the people that smoked them and threw them in the river? What’s their history? Once I thought I found part of a human jaw with a tooth in it and took it to the nearest police station. They were amused at this little American exchange student coming in all freaked out and put on their gloves and said that well, it could theoretically be human, but it’s probably sheep or goat, and the river would have washed away any evidence or provenance anyway. So I got to keep my little mystery tooth and jaw.

  76. Ancient glass -- English, Spanish, Dutch, French, mystic --handmade, blown free or molded, heavy, thick, delicate, thin, black, amber, green, purple -- sun-colored-amethyst -- wine, brandy, whisky, gin, medicinal, poison -- halves, pints, quarts, demijohns -- hidden, hiding, sunk to a fleeting glitter among muddy mangrove roots, a jungle-gym of climbing, slinking, slipping, sinking, slithering -- ankle deep, calf deep, slowly through a maze of prop-roots, trunks and branches, eyes scanning dark, leaf-mold pudding mud -- low tide and lower -- sunlight dappling, flickering, sea breeze rustling, softly grinding boughs, cormorants, herons and egrets overhead, watching cautiously, curiously -- sudden joy -- a top -- a shoulder-- barely seen, missed by an eyelash -- eyes only -- muddy hands slowly extracting -- mud-choked, centuries old artisan's craft -- intact! no cracks! -- passed hand to hand -- soon cleaned, purged, rinsed and rinsed, swizzled, brushed -- finally shelved again after centuries, sunlight illuminates bubbles, embossing, dazzling imperfections, kick-ups, pontils still sharp -- it's a rare form of self-indulgent, often punishing (heat, humidity, mosquitoes, practically impenetrable thickets) sublime and exotic exercise and delightful discovery -- a magic theater -- Not For Everybody -- Madman Only? -- you should see my Vandenbergs, demijohns, free-blowns, way too many for a normal eccentric to possess, but all on display, like stained glass -- my unique cathedral.

  77. This story on mudlarkers calls to mind a trip my husband and I took to northern France (Somme/Picardie region) to tour the WW I battlefields and follow in the footsteps of the soldier poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. We also stopped at the Somme American Cemetery and Memorial in Bony and met a remarkable young Frenchman who told us how he grew up in the area and has long considered it his duty to care for these fallen American soldiers, since "they cared for my country by fighting here so long ago". In France, the fall harvest is called "le moisson"; in the spring, they have "le moisson de fer" or the "iron harvest" because when they till the fields, even 100 years after the war, they are still finding bullets, pipes, ceramic jug shards, medals, buttons, etc. This young man at the Bony cemetery brought out a box of all of the things he has found in the area, since he was a child, to share with us. I will never forget his humility in caring for our soldiers' final burial place, and his kindness in sharing his treasures.

  78. Europe has many metal detectorists, and a series on the BBC helped make it even more popular. In autumn, when the fields have been plowed, I regularly see them. Also, plenty to find about this side of the pond: WW1 and WW2 battles, Napoleonic battles, roman finds, viking finds, prehistoric finds...

  79. As a child, 45 years ago, along the Columbia River in Washington State, families would go down to the river bank with an old screen door and shovels. Pass the sand through the screen and reveal the smallest of arrow heads, beautifully formed of unique stones. Purposed to impale fish and birds.

  80. Megan Specia needs to read Great Expectations.

  81. Better yet, Our Mutual Friend, which begins with salvaging from the Thames.

  82. @spintria. At one time, apparently, brothels in western states issued tokens to pay for services rendered. I have 2, probably fakes, that say 'Good for all night' and a 3, presumably $3. The Romans were 'way ahead of us. Fun idea, anyway. Good new word.

  83. There was a podcast I listened to about this. I must be old fashioned but I find the idea of touching something 100s of years old for the first time since the original owner incredible. Next best thing to touching them. I’ve picked up arrowheads and pottery shards in Utah and wondered about the story they could tell if could hear it. I leave them where I find them so they can tell experts their story, but it’s still an amazing feeling. I can’t imagine how exciting doing that in London would be, where you can actually pick the stuff up and see it in a museum. What fun.

  84. @AT As an archaeologist I thank you for leaving artifacts where you find them. I share your deep fascination with them and respect for the people that left them, and I admire your restraint in letting the land keep them in context.

  85. This brings to mind Penelope Fitzgerald's 1979 Booker Prize winning novel "Offshore". Two young children living in a insular community of houseboats moored on the Thames know of a spot where decorative tiles can be found and a shopkeeper who will buy them. Great book with vivid descriptions of this activity.

  86. After reading this I went straight to Instragram and followed london.mudlark. Just checked... Lara found a cartwheel mooring! Loved all the followup explanations. Fishing? Hunting? Mudlarking? Mudlarking! I'm fascinated!

  87. To Megan Specia; A beautiful story to begin my day with.

  88. I can't help think of Dryden's Mac Flecknoe when pondering the muck of the Thames: "About thy boat the little fishes throng, As at the morning toast, that floats along...." The Thames was so polluted in earlier days that you could actually see the raw sewage floating along. I'll let others do the mudlarking.

  89. A very interesting story to take my mind off current politics. I love that there is still so much history to be found in the Thames. Keep searching, Mudlarks. Secrets from the past are waiting for you.