At low-tide, the banks of the River Thames become the largest open air archaeological site in London. Every day, new artefacts get washed up on the shore, and old sites get exposed.
As 19th century MP John Burns once quite rightly said “The St. Lawrence is mere water. The Missouri muddy water. The Thames is liquid history.” And that’s exactly what we’re setting out to prove on our dirtiest of Dirty Weekends when Steve ‘Mud God’ Brooker (yes, him off the TV series ‘Mud Men’ and member of the Society of Thames Mudlarks) takes us along the Thames foreshore on a search for hidden pieces of London’s history. Here are 10 things that Steve has found and (if you join us) you could too…
1. Clay Pipes
Clay pipes are a very common river find (these are just a tiny fraction of Steve’s collection). This stems from the fact that clay pipes were a single use item, you smoked them and then threw them away. Finding a clay pipe is like picking up a fancier, less yucky version of a cigarette butt.
Interestingly, you can tell how old a pipe is by its size – Tobacco was a very expensive commodity in the 16th century when it was first brought to England, so pipes were very small (like the one in the centre of the photo). As tobacco became cheaper, people smoked it in greater quantities and pipes became larger.
Anyone who has been locked out of their house knows how easy it can be to misplace your keys. It seems that lots of people throughout London’s history have misplaced theirs into the Thames.
Losing your keys in one thing, but you’d think losing your lock would be a little more difficult. Despite this, locks are frequently pulled out of the mud. 18th century padlocks don’t come out of the Thames looking this shiny. But with a little love and elbow grease from Steve they can look good as new.
Coins are very common find. And not only your every day 2p piece on the pavement. Steve has found everything from Roman to Saxon to Tudor, Georgian and that regular old 2p piece too. Keep an eye out.
Thimbles are another nice everyday item you might find in the muck. They would have been used to sew at home and also by craftspeople. There are many types of thimble from the dainty to industrial and all of them tell a story of their owner.
This particular thimble is from the mid to late 1600s. It was made in Nuremberg, Germany a very popular place of manufacture for thimbles in the 17th century.
6. Love Tokens
Love Tokens are a lovely little something you might find on your hunt. These are coins that have been smoothed out and inscribed with a lovers name. They were given as a sign of affection. Many of them have holes pierced in them for the object of affection to wear to show they return the feeling. Presumably if the love was not returned, the token was chucked into the Thames.
You might come across dice – but look closely because medieval dice are smaller than modern ones. They are often decorated like this one with concentric circles instead of plain dots. In the medieval period games of chance were popular and so was trickery – It is not uncommon to find dice that are weighted to fall on a particular side or ones that have duplicated numbers.
You’ll also come across crockery of every sort from prehistoric to modern. Since crockery was used daily and was fragile, huge amounts of it would have been discarded after being broken and some of it even while whole. We particularly like this teensy-weensy example of a Tudor jug.
They are difficult to differentiate from regular rocks – and particularly so on a muddy riverbank, but, if you have a very keen eye you might spot a prehistoric tool. The Thames is actually a prime spot to look for worked stone because early humans would have lived near the river since it was a source of food and water. Here’s Steve and a friend with a rough-out neolithic axe they’ve found.
Just to add a bit more excitement (or caution?) to the excursion, we’d like you to know that finding explosives (or the remains of them) is a very real possibility when walking the Thames. London was bombed very heavily during the Second World War and has been involved in many other conflicts so be very careful if you spot something like this.
Now you’re armed with some knowledge, it’s time to get dirty. See you on the foreshore!
Be An Archaeologist!
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