Battling Old Father Thames: The Thames Discovery Programme at ten

9 mins read
FROG members – Thames Discovery Programme volunteers – are shown working on 19th century nautical timbers exposed at Charlton in 2009. (IMAGE: Thames Discovery Programme)
The Thames Discovery Programme – whose volunteers record the archaeology of the Thames foreshore – has recently celebrated its tenth birthday. Eliott Wragg, Nathalie Cohen, and Josh Frost explore some of the initiative’s most important findings from its first decade of life.

Archaeologists of the Thames foreshore are blessed with two enormous parallel ‘sites’ to work on: riverbanks stretching from Erith in the east, to Richmond in the west – essentially the entire tidal reach of the river, where the movement of water is constantly uncovering artefacts and features spanning much of human history. In one respect, this makes our work easy – as the Thames Discovery Programme’s Senior Community Archaeologist Helen Johnston told delegates at the most recent CA conference, ‘we don’t dig: the river does it for us’ – but the scale of the Thames foreshore and the speed of its erosion also presents challenges. Its expanse is way beyond the capacity of any small professional team to record and monitor – which is where the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) and its army of volunteers comes in.

FROG members working on a gridiron made from recycled 18th-/ 19th-century nautical timbers, found at Hanover Stairs in 2010. (IMAGE: Thames Discovery Programme)

Towards the end of 2018, the TDP celebrated its tenth year on the Thames foreshore – testament to the enthusiasm, skill, and commitment of our volunteers, who venture out in all weathers to record exposed archaeology before it is eroded away, and to help communicate the history of the river to as wide an audience as possible. The project is also endebted to pioneers of intertidal archaeology including, but not limited to, Mortimer Wheeler, Ivor Noël Hume, Geoff Egan, Gustav Milne, and Tony Pilson – their work, along with that of many local societies and the extensive surveys of our predecessor the Thames Archaeological Survey (TAS – see CA 343) in the 1990s, laid the foundations on which the TDP has flourished.

As with many community archaeology projects, our first funding came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which supported three years of work based at Thames Estuary Partnership and the Thames Explorer Trust (see CA 244). When this funding ended in in 2011, TDP joined MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), allowing us to benefit from the expertise of specialist colleagues across the organisation. TDP has also been able to contribute its own foreshore expertise to commercial schemes and the development of other intertidal projects, notably the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network (CITiZAN – see CA 306 and 324). Since 2016, we have also expanded our outreach, working with the over-75s and younger Londoners in an initiative supported by the City Bridge Trust and Tideway (the London ‘super sewer’ project). But how does the TDP operate?

FROGs recording the river wall at Cannon Street in 2016. (IMAGE: Thames Discovery Programme)

To help explore what is effectively the longest archaeological site in Britain, over the past decade we have trained over 700 FROGs to act as our eyes and ears along the Thames. That’s not to say that we have recruited amphibians to help record riverine archaeology – these are our volunteers, the Foreshore Recording and Observation Group, whose members take ‘ownership’ of stretches of the river to document changes and any emerging and eroding archaeology through photographic and written walk-over survey.

In a dynamic and ever-evolving environment, these surveys are an invaluable help to our staff, who can then recognise which areas are eroding most rapidly, and which have newly emergent and fragile archaeological features that need recording before they are swept away. Each month during the summer, the TDP schedules a week of fieldwork to respond to threatened archaeology, and many FROGs join in, cleaning, planning, and recording features and deposits. Preservation by record is all we can achieve, as we have no budget for conservation, yet even this could not happen without the valiant and vital efforts of the FROGs.

A Saxon fish trap, discovered at Chelsea in 2009. (IMAGE: Thames Discovery Programme)

Other volunteers research the documentary, cartographic, pictographic, and photographic backgrounds to sites and produce blogs for our website (www.thames, while undergraduate and postgraduate members have written site reports as their dissertations. We aim to involve our volunteers much more in the research and post-excavation process, and we hope that in future years we will see FROG publications and hopefully an article in CA. So, what have we found?


If fish was off the prehistoric menu, though, Romano-British Londoners certainly enjoyed ‘whitebite’ or garum, as fragments of containers attest. Sadly, no trace of Roman fishing has been in found on the Thames foreshore (perhaps because the river has changed and the Roman banks lie in what is now dry land). The contrary can be said for the Anglo-Saxons, though: 14 fish traps have been recorded by the TDP and TAS. These were made from roundwood piles, originally with wattle panels, that formed a V-shaped or linear structure possibly stretching between now-lost islands. They span the later 4th to 10th centuries AD, and range from Greenwich in the east to Isleworth in the west, while a 10th-century wattle hurdle was also recorded at Fulham. We have no definitive evidence for fish traps after this period, probably because Magna Carta, as well as statutes issued by Edward III, Edward IV, and Henry VIII, called for ‘fish weirs’ to be pulled up – as a result, line and net fishing may have become more common.

A 15th-century fish basket, found on the Isle of Dogs, shown being examined by mudlark Nick Stevens. (IMAGE: Thames Discovery Programme)

Wicker fish or eel baskets, akin to a lobster pot, do feature on the foreshore, however. The earliest known (15th-century) example was found on the Isle of Dogs by mudlark Nick Stevens, and TDP has recorded more fish baskets in that area, as well as in central London, and at least 30 by Surrey Docks Farm on the Rotherhithe peninsula. Of these, the baskets that we could date are from the later 19th century – not a time when anyone would want to eat fish from the Thames, due to appalling pollution, or indeed when fish would thrive in the river. It seems more likely that they had originally been used further down the Estuary, and were recycled for foreshore consolidation as they wore out.

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 350. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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