Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mudlarks and History

You might think (I certainly did) that in a huge city like London, any segment of riverbank was long ago picked over for the archaeological detritus that might be hidden there. Well, we're wrong. Maybe you'd like to distance yourself from me.

I'm not sure why--maybe because the Thames has not been concreted over like most well-behaved rivers--but London's river remains rich in ancient deposits, some dating back to Roman times. Treasure hunters rejoice!

If you want to muck about, though, you'll probably only be allowed to do so on the south bank. The north side of the river is the private domain of serious, if amateur, excavators . Britain issues a very limited number of licenses allowing exploration of this artifact-rich area, so the owners of those licenses have formed their own fraternity: The Society of Thames Mudlarks. This picture, from OurPastHistory.com, shows mudlarks working the shore at Southwark.

The name comes from a term that once referred to street urchins in the Victorian Age. At low tide--and tides on the Thames can drop as much as 25 feet--mudlarks go to work, many using metal detectors. They find coins, tools, and toys--like guns that actually carried a charge and may have blown off a few fingers. Most of the objects fell out of ships through the ages, and anything over 300 years old become property of the Museum of London (though the finders are rewarded).

National Geographic did a piece on the mudlarks in 2004. Last week's Time Magazine featured a fascinating "Postcard" segment about them as well (pg. 6 of the October 12, 2009 issue, or here). Go read it for a hint of the finds, all the regulations about what happens to the goodies dug out of the river mud, and for a profile of Steve Brooker, former pro skateboarder and awesome Mud God of the mudlarks. Just this year, Brooker found a ball and chain once worn (unwillingly) by a 17th-century prisoner. Here's a link to that story in the Daily Mail, which is where the picture below came from. Brooker's find is the only complete ball, chain & lock ever found.

The last paragraph of the Time piece intrigued me. Through a series of mini strokes, I read, Brooker lost large portions of his own memories about three years ago. Irretrievably. Does that have anything to do with his need to uncover history?

During the last few years of my parents' lives (they died within a week of each other, after 55 years of marriage), I became obsessed with family history and genealogy. I made connections all over the country with folks who had the same unusual last name, and found that the 200 or so people in the world who shared that name were, indeed, all related and all traced their history to a town in the Rhine Palatinate region of Germany.

Then my parents died, and I lost interest. With all the fickleness of a spoiled prom queen, I packed away the charts and notebooks and have not looked at them since. Doesn't take much analysis to figure out what was going on there, does it?

So I was curious about Brooker's loss, and how it played into his fascination with mudlarking. This entry from Antiquarian's Attic says that Brooker has been a mudlark for 12 years. I guess my attempt to read something Freudian into his passion is misdirected, but the tail of the mudlarks is still a fascinating one.




2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I AM THE ALMOST FAMOUS MUD GOD STEVE BROOKER.........AND IVE BEEN ON THE THAMES SINCE I WAS 15 (THE 12 YEAR'S BIT IN THE PIECE REFER'S TO BEING DOWN THERE ALL THE TIME AMONST WORK !!!)

AS FOR FINDING HISTORY TO PATCH MY VOID IN MY BRAIN........"NOT"!!!

BUT WOULD HAVE MADE A GOOD STORY THOUGH.......GO TO thamesandfield.co.uk TO SEE SOME SAUCY FIND'S FROM THE THAMES.......MUD GOD

Vix said...

Whoa! I have never had a direct response from a god before! Thank you for visiting my humble blog (and I'd really like a pony).