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A Gatherer on the Foreshore of the Thames ~ A Review of Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking

Recently I was asked for advice about searching for fossil shark teeth in Maryland.  I described sites on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay and on the Potomac River, and added a crucial bit of information:  these sites are on tidal waters.  Of most immediate concern, the maximum exposure of areas to be explored for fossils occurs at low tide, while, at high tide, beaches disappear under water and the unwary fossil hunter may be trapped against cliffside.  But, even more fundamentally, the entire collecting enterprise here has a particular nature because of the tides, aided by the weather.  The tides are a constant companion for the collector, a companion whose demeanor must be attended to carefully.  Areas for collecting are in constant change; beaches expand and contract; piles of debris, clumps of algae, and stray dead fish confront the collector one day only to be gone the next day.  Fossils appear and disappear thanks to the tides.  I have often referred to the fossil gods who may bless an outing with an abundance of finds, or condemn it to hours of unproductive, painful exploration.  Are the tides here the agents of the fossil gods or the gods themselves?

Lara Maiklem knows of what I write, even though her venue is the Thames as it flows through London and her quarry archaeological.  Her stunning book Mudlarking:  Lost and Found on the River Thames (2019) describes her experiences combing the foreshore of the Thames for lost objects from the many communities that have inhabited these shores for millennia. 

The book is a heady and compelling combination of social and political history (we are talking about London, after all), adventure (searching the Thames foreshore is not without its dangers), and memoir (her family history and her own history are gently introduced).  With a writing style that is graceful and warm, Maiklem strikes no false notes in her account of her mudlarking on the Thames.  The book is a wonder.

I should start where she starts, with a definition of mudlark.  It’s both a noun and a verb.  A mudlark, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd definition, colloquial) is:
A person who scavenges for usable debris in the tidal mud of a river, harbour, etc.To mudlark is to engage in such activity.  I particularly like the OED’s etymology of the term, “probably humorously after skylark.”  Mudlarking is, in fact, a very old activity; the earliest use cited by the OED is from the late 18th century.

In the book, Maiklem traces the Thames from west to east as it courses its way to and through London.  The river is, she notes, “England’s longest archaeological landscape and thousands of the objects that fill our museums have come from its foreshore.”  (p. 47)  It’s not just the obvious things that the river preserves, such as swords and spoons, but its anerobic mud holds soft material, such as wood and leather, in suspended animation.  The human presence along its shores goes way, way back; indeed, Maiklem’s oldest find is a worked Mesolithic flint.  Actually, the human presence on the river may be as much responsible for what mudlarks find.  For ages, people have worked on the river and traveled on the river, losing cargo and personal items to it in the process.

Her finds from the length of the river as it passes through London are a bewildering array of objects, most centuries old, ranging from coins to knives to cannon balls, toys to dice, rings to dress pins, shoes to pipes, glass jars to pottery, and on and on.  For many of the different kinds of objects that a mudlark collects from the Thames, she provides a succinct overview of how they were made and used.  Yet there is much that is not collected, most of it in the modern detritus that fouls the foreshore with such things as wet wipes, plastic teeth flossers, disposable razors, toothpaste tubes, and so on.  Sadly, much of the modern refuse is plastic which will, in essence, be with us forever.

Maiklem frames the book around key sections of the river’s foreshore, devoting individual chapters to each:  beginning with the Tidal Head in the west, and then moving to Hammersmith, Vauxhall, Trig Lane, Bankside, Queenhithe, London Bridge, Tower Beach, Rotherhithe, Wapping, Greenwich, Tilbury, and ending at the Estuary in the east.  In each, we learn more about mudlarking, a bit more about Maiklem herself, and much about the shoreline:  what it’s like now, what it was centuries ago, what might be found in each section, and why.  For the last, she offers glimpses of the history of an area, describing who lived there and how this influenced what the river offers up today.  Her collecting impulse comes not from the potential monetary value of any particular find.  Rather, it’s the human story behind the object that draws her in, leading her to speculate as to who might have used it and how it might have come to be lost and then washed onto the foreshore for her to find.

As she draws out the narrative behind found objects, she weaves in her own personal story.  For instance, in the chapter on Greenwich (perhaps one of the most personal in the book) she describes how she came to live there for some time and how, finding solace walking the path along the river, she was slowly drawn to the shoreline and became aware of what the mud held.  She starting collecting and then, upon reading an article about mudlarking, discovered she’d become a mudlark.  Her story in this chapter touches on her marriage, the birth of twins, the death of her father, and her attraction to things Tudor, an outgrowth of her childhood living in a 16th century farmhouse.

Even as she reveals these aspects of her life story, the foreshore remains the chapter’s focus, for it’s at Greenwich that Henry VII in the late 1400s replaced a large house dating back to the early medieval period with a palace that, in time, became Henry VIII’s primary royal residence.  Thus Tudor history permeates the area, including what is to be found combing the foreshore:
The objects that are hidden in the mud at Greenwich fill in the details that are missing from the history books and brings the world of the Tudor palace to life.  The foreshore here is like one large midden, a palatial version of the one in front of the house where I grew up, and in which are buried the ordinary lives behind the lavish parties. (p. 238)With that, she introduces the reader to what the river gives up at this place which reflects the life that palace residents lived, particularly those aspects involving food:  what was prepared, and the implements used in its preparation and in its consumption.  The mud disgorges pieces of pottery from pots used in the palace kitchen, myriad bones from the animals whose flesh was cooked and eaten by palace residents, remnants of the fruit and nuts they consumed, knife handles made of bone, ivory, and wood, and spoons of bone and pewter.

It is when Maiklem deconstructs the process of mudlarking that I find strong connections to the kind of fossil collecting that I do along tidal waters.  I began this post with the tides and how they hold the collector in thrall.  She’s no stranger to that power.
I am obsessed with the incessant rise and fall of the water.  For years my spare time has been controlled by the river’s ebb and flow, and the consequent covering and uncovering of the foreshore. . . .  I have carefully arranged meetings and appointments according to the tides, and conspired to meet friends near the river so that I can steal down to the foreshore before the water comes in and after it’s flowed out. . . . I have lied, cajoled and manipulated to get time by the river.  (p. 3)She draws a striking distinction between the gatherer mudlark and the hunter mudlark.  The former takes what the river offers up, the latter attacks the river’s foreshore with implements to uncover objects the river has not yet chosen to reveal.  For the gatherer, time on the river is what’s of most value; for the hunter, it’s often the value of the objects found, in terms of the money or status they might bring.  Though I’ve indulged in both approaches in my fossil collecting, I agree with her that, when my interaction with beach is at its gentlest, casting just my eyes upon it, the whole process is at its most meditative.  That’s when I am lost in the flow (a mental state I’ve written about several times, including here).

Not surprisingly, she recognizes the importance of acquiring a “search image” (though she doesn’t use that phrase) in order to distinguish one’s quarry from the surface of the shore.  A search image is critical for fossil collecting and mudlarking.  In the chapter on the London Bridge area, she recounts how, when she was a child, her mother would take her on nature walks, showing her how to observe and pay attention to details of the environment around her.  Still, despite her “keen eye,” Maiklem notes that finding things along the shoreline did not come easily.
It took me a lot of time, practice and patience before I started spotting objects lurking in the Thames mud.  Mudlarks call this ‘getting your eye in’ and the mistake many people make is looking too hard.  Mudlarking is a stubborn skill and the harder you look the less likely you are to be successful.  The key to spotting objects on the foreshore is simply to relax and look through the surface.  (p. 140)She makes that point forcefully in her chapter on Trig Lane which presents a delightful discussion of handmade metal pins, her “favourite kinds of treasure.”  Maiklem describes how they were made (from roughly 1400 to the early 1880s when machine production took over) and used.  Though the foreshore abounds in handmade pins, at first they eluded her.
It took me a year or so to find my first one, but now I’ve got my eye in for them I see them everywhere. . . .  In some areas the mud bristles with them and I search gingerly to avoid being pricked.  (p. 87)  The dangers of collecting along shorelines are broadly similar for those in search of fossils in the sites I have frequented and those looking for lost objects along the Thames’ foreshore.  It’s risky to search alone in many places.  The waters themselves can threaten the collector with an appalling mixture of toxic materials (though the urban mixture along the Thames seems worse than what I’m used to as it includes medical waste, condoms, and syringes, among other delightful things).  Water-borne illness can strike the collector.  Yes, this can be a nasty business, but the mudlark and the fossil collector persist because the psychic rewards outweigh the risks.

At the end of the book, Maiklem sums up the journey the reader has taken with her from the east to west.  She writes as though she’s standing on the edge of the estuary where the Thames mixes into the North Sea and is visualizing the tide rushing in from the sea, moving west toward London, swelling the river and covering what is held by the mud and muck of the foreshore.  It is here that she beautifully captures in a finely wrought simile what the Thames must be for mudlarks:
The river is like a great khaki snake-dragon, smoothing and stroking its treasures, hiding them in its coils.  (p. 293) | Impressum