Mudlarking the Thames: How a Riverbed Became the World’s Biggest Archaeological Site
A mudlark is the name given to a person who scavenges in the foreshore of a river for objects that could be sold. This term applies specifically to those operating along the Thames River in London during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although mudlarking continues today along the Thames, it isn’t quite the same sort of activity that it was a century or two ago.
For much of its history, the Thames was used by the people of London as a convenient place to dispose of their rubbish. Over the centuries, artifacts from all eras were deposited in the foreshore of the river. As the mud of the Thames is anaerobic (without oxygen), objects thrown into it are well-preserved. The Thames foreshore is regarded to be one of the richest archaeological sites in Britain, and perhaps one of the largest in the world.
The Job of Mudlarking
It was only during the 18 th century that mudlarking began to be carried out. The mudlarks of this period were interested in scavenging for small objects of value that had been dropped into the river, or cargo that had fallen off passing boats. These finds were then sold, and although this was normally for a meagre sum of money, mudlarking was a means of making a living at that time. In fact, mudlarking was recognized as a legitimate occupation until the early 20 th century.
Mudlarking on Bankside. (Rose of Academe_ / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Originally, the mudlarking was a job done by children, normally aged between 8 and 14 or 15. Most mudlarks were boys, but girls also partook in this activity. The mudlarks were a peculiar class of people, and were identifiable by their filthy appearance, ragged clothes, and strong stench. They were confined to the river and would begin work when the tide went out. They would scavenge the foreshore until the tide came back in.
Who Are the Mudlarks?
An account of an unnamed 13-year-old mudlark can be found in the extra volume of London Labour and the London Poor, published by the journalist Henry Mayhew in 1861. In his work, Mayhew considers mudlarks to be ‘Those who will not work’, and places them under the chapter of ‘Thieves and Swindlers’. Mudlarks belong to the sub-chapter ‘Felonies on the River Thames’, alongside river pirates and smugglers. Needless to say, mudlarking was regarded to be an activity of ill-repute during the 19 th century.
Mudlarks of Victorian London, The Headington Magazine, 1871. (Mervyn / Public Domain)
Mudlarking has changed much since then. Unlike their predecessors, today’s mudlarks are not destitute children who are forced to do such a job in order to earn some money. Instead, they are individuals who are enthusiastic about the history and archaeology of the city. In addition, modern day mudlarks have their own society, the Society of Thames Mudlarks, which has been in operation since 1976, and works closely with the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Under this scheme, today’s mudlarks record their finds meticulously. Members of the public are also allowed to mudlark, provided they purchase a permit, and report any find that is over 300 years old. They are, however, only allowed to dig to a depth of several centimeters on the southern shore.
What Is Found While Mudlarking?
The artifacts found by modern day mudlarks come from every period of London’s history and paint an interesting and sometimes even personal history of the city. As an example, one of the more fascinating finds made by mudlark Nick Stevens is a trader’s token made by a vintner at Ye Maidenhead on Pudding Lane. The token was issued in 1657 by Brian Appleby and contains not only his name but also that of his wife, their trade, location, and date. Such tokens were produced by traders so that their customers could use them when the Mint ran out of coins.
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Mudlark Finds - exposed shoreline at high tide on the Thames. It is a dressed stone of some sort, flat and about A4 size with the mason's marks clearly visible. (Tom Lee / CC BY-SA 2.0)
One of the oldest finds made by mudlarks is the fragment of a skull dating to the Neolithic period. Experts have determined that this skull fragment belonged to a male above 18 years of age. Radiocarbon dating also showed that the person had lived sometime around 3600 BC. Other finds made by modern mudlarks include pottery shards from Roman times, Medieval glazed floor tiles, Elizabethan clay pipes, and, of course, a whole range of objects from modern times. Recently the skeleton of a Medieval man still wearing well-preserved leather boots was found.
Mudlarking On The Thames - The Antiques Roadshow - Dingo and Madelyn discuss an etched bottle with red-glass camels on it. (Dauvit Alexander / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Top image: Mudlarking on the exposed foreshore at low spring tide. Source: diamond geezer / CC BY-SA 2.0.
By Wu Mingren
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