Review – Mudlarking: lost and found on the River Thames

6 mins read

Lara Maiklem
Bloomsbury Circus, £16.99
ISBN 978-1408889213
Review Carly Hilts

The tidal reach of the River Thames is the longest archaeological site in Britain, its rhythmically rising and falling waters exposing a wealth of material spanning millennia of human activity along its banks. For the last decade, thousands of features and objects have been recorded by the Thames Discovery Programme and its volunteers (see CA 350) – but people have also been exploring the foreshore and its finds on a more informal basis for centuries.

In the 19th century, mudlarking was a grim occupation, scavenging for saleable items amid riverside rubbish and cold water. By contrast, today it is a more peaceful pastime akin to beachcombing – and, when practised responsibly, a useful addition to our understanding of archaeology. Mudlark Lara Maiklem has been exploring the banks of the Thames for 15 years. A dreamy child, she grew up on a farm with a river running through it, and always felt a powerful connection to the flowing water. This link was reforged after she moved to London for work and found that poring over the Thames foreshore was a meditative escape from the office.

In her engagingly written book, Lara uses some of her favourite finds to explore the history of different areas of London and of the Thames itself. The river was much slower, wider, and shallower 2,000 years ago, and its evolution and industrialisation help trace the development of the city that it flows through. (For more on the archaeology of the river and its tributaries, see CA 354.) Every object has a story to tell – sometimes surprising, sometimes poignant – and Lara sketches these out with obvious enthusiasm. The one disappointment is that there are no photos to enhance her accounts.

A small green marble sparks talk of Victorian ingenuity and mischievous children, while a glass bottle evokes a Cornish brewery that marked its bottles with a swastika, once a symbol of fertility and good health, before more unsavoury associations prompted a rapid redesign. Pins, at first glance unremarkable objects, offer tangible links to all stages of life, having once secured swaddling, clothing, and shrouds. The most-intriguing tale, though, is that of ‘Doves Type’, an aspirational typeface reflecting the aesthetic enthusiasms of the Arts and Crafts movement which was consigned to a watery grave after the businessmen behind its creation fell out. (Its use in the book’s running heads and the first letter of each chapter is a lovely touch.)

From famous finds like the Battersea Shield and the folklore associated with fossils to the lives of eccentric antiquarians (and some of the equally characterful figures studying the foreshore today), this is a story as winding as the course of the Thames itself. Lara writes with a lyrically evocative turn of phrase, crafting immersive images of waterscapes, bridges, and artefacts through her almost tactile prose. Reading about rustling winter-browned reeds and grasses, tight knots of roots, and the dank, almost ‘chewable’ smell of warm algae, rotten wood, and wet sand, you can practically feel the mud beneath her boots.

Lara’s convivial tone lends a feel of stories shared across a pub table, but there is an important underlying message: a clarion call for responsible collecting. It is reassuring to find, among her intrepid anecdotes, a clear description of the Port of London Authority permits needed to search the foreshore, and of the Treasure process and the legal obligations of finders who fall within its remit – as well as a ringing endorsement of the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the importance of reporting finds.

Lara divides her fellow mudlarks into ‘hunters’ (who use metal-detectors and spades to delve deep below the surface – these she stingingly accuses of being motivated primarily by objects’ rarity and value) and ‘gatherers’ (‘eyes-only foragers’, only picking up objects on the surface that would otherwise be swept away). Appealing for an end to all amateur digging on the foreshore, her elegy to objects lost to, or broken by, ‘the indiscriminate spade or fork’ that ‘hack[s] through centuries in an afternoon’ is heartfelt. A complementary and inspiring sentiment comes via a quote from Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments: ‘People should know what’s coming out of the river so that its importance is appreciated and understood… it’s not a discovery if you keep it to yourself.’

This review appeared in CA 358. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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