How To… Spot An Ancient Relic When You’re Walking On The Thames

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This bit of shoe that Raksha found on the Thames Foreshore might not be a Manolo, but it is old.

When we took a group of Dirty Weekenders hunting for artefacts along the Thames, we came across an array of finds, from clay tobacco pipes and musket balls to a George III coin. This might make London’s foreshore sound like easy pickings, but you have to watch out because it can easily fool you…

The short shorts were out and the sunburns were in as we were blessed with the hottest weekend of the year so far on our Dirty Weekend on the Thames. But as well as discovering many exciting artefacts, we had plenty of duds. Telling them apart is harder than it looks, which is what made having ‘Mud Man’ Steve Brooker and the DigVentures team along so great: you won’t end up taking home an ancient relic, only to find out it’s really rubbish.

So how do you know when what you’ve found is worth putting in a finds bag, or just tossing back into the mud? Nothing can replace experience or expertise, but here are four examples that will give you a very good clue…

1. Tudor pins

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A handful of tiny Tudor pins found by the eagle-eyed Dirty Weekenders.

Ever heard the term ‘pin money’? Well this is where it comes from! 16-17th century Tudor ruffs and other clothing would have been held together with a multitude of these little pins which probably restricted movement. It is said the one Tudor woman who was getting married had 1000 pins holding her dress together! A lot of money would have been spent on these as they were as easy to lose as bobby pins nowadays.

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A bunch of rusty nails, also found the Dirty Weekenders.

These are nails, commonly mistaken with Tudor pins. Most nails were made from iron and when iron comes into contact with oxygen, like on the surface of the foreshore, it will start to rust creating a layer around the actual object. Iron nails often rust away whereas Tudor pins are thinner and don’t rust.

2. Old Beer Bottles

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Stuart’s found a porter bottle from the 19th century

Bottles usually come smashed up into smaller pieces however we found two that had remained whole. Stuart from the Portable Antiquities Scheme pulled this beauty out the mud, which dates from around 1800-20. The asymmetrical shape of the bottle, and the fact that there is no seam, shows it was hand-blown and not cast moulded like modern-day ones. It was made from black glass and would have held Porter, an old beer similar to today’s Guinness.

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This milk bottle will bring back memories for 80s kids.

We also managed to find this whole milk bottle from United Dairies. Yes, it was only from a few decades ago when you could still hear the milk floats rattling in the early morning, but when compared to the other bottle we found, you might want to leave this one behind… Or give it to a hipster.

3. Pilgrim’s Badges

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A St Leonards pilgrim badge (image from Portable Antiquities Scheme)

Pilgrims badge are souvenirs and proof that you had been on a pilgrimage for religion and/or health. Most of these badges show saints or the Virgin Mary however others can portray more lewd pictures, and these ones were to help cure diseases like syphilis. Pilgrims badges were mass-produced from pewter and a massive money making scheme as people were guaranteed to buy them.

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An old car battery… bits of it can easily be mistaken for pilgrims badges.

Unfortunately, no pilgrim’s badges were found over the weekend, but we did have a dud. It was a piece of car battery, but many people mistake finding a small piece of the lattice work as the back of a pilgrim’s badge, which is also a lattice. When the decorative part falls off they do end up looking pretty similar!

4. Cannonballs

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A cannonball found on our Thames Dirty Weekend by Steve Brooker

The ‘Mud God’ Steve found this cannonball we at first thought it was just a rock in the mud, but there are a few markers that, once rinsed of mud, give it away. Some have holes in them where a fuse to an explosive like gunpowder would have been held. Others, like our one, have a seam running round the middle where two halves have come together to make one ball. One last clue could be a production date stamped onto it.

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Two suspiciously round balls… but that’s all they are.

Once one cannonball had been found, everyone was on the lookout for one and we had a brief moment of double excitement when we found these two balls; even naturally rounded stones can look like cannonballs at first glance. The biggest giveaway is that compared to iron, they feel pretty lightweight.

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Written by Shelby Millard

Shelby is DigVentures' former trainee Community Archaeologist. She loves pottery, sequins and ice cream. If you need her, Shelby's trademark pink trousers mean she's always easy to spot!

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