Ever heard of mudlarking? No marks off if not, it’s the hobby of sifting through the muddy banks of a river in the search for lost treasure. Sound a bit messy? You betcha, and it used to be a lot worse. The past-time sprang up in the industrial revolution of 19th century Britain, as struggling workers and down-and-outs would resort to scrambling through the rubbish, rocks and excrement of the Thames in the vain hope they’d find something vaguely of value. The pressures of a cramped city overcome by desperate urbanisation meant that the Thames was invariably chock-a-block with all manner of disgusting things, and mudlarking became one of the most denigrated jobs in the country.
Fast forward a hundred years or so, and thanks to several massive clean-up operations, the Thames is a different beast – so different, in fact, that salmon have been reintroduced after 200 years of keeping away from the filth. So, like all fashion, mudlarking has enjoyed a triumphant return to vogue, with throngs of eager beavers sorting their way through acres of silt and stones to get a glimpse of London’s potted past.
The hobby has proved so popular in the past few decades, in fact, that the Society of Thames Mudlarks, founded in 1980, allows its members permits to scour the river and turn over any treasures to the Museum of London. And now, 29 years later, the museum is inviting visitors to a summer of celebration recognising the efforts of mudlarks, and the myriad wonders they’ve unearthed from London’s pulsing pulmonary artery.
The events, part of this year’s Festival of British Archaeology, kick off on 28 July with a guided tour of the river which aims to show visitors the archaeological secrets of the Thames. Subsequent days and nights explore the treasures of the Thames, from prehistoric tools, to Roman pots; from medieval mementos to Tudor ships – and everything in between. All events are scott free, and will be a great way to see the archaeology of one of the world’s greatest cities hands-on. Well worth getting your hands dirty for.
Image by William