Mudlarking on the Thames, Part 2: What can we do with Fragments and Waste?

Image One: The group standing on shards under the Shard.

In Rubbish Theory, Michael Thompson argues that there are three kinds of value categories: ‘transient’ or ‘here today, gone tomorrow’; ‘durable’ or ‘a joy forever’; and rubbish. Things can move between categories, with a bottle thrown away at its time of use becoming a collectable or a ring that slipped from the finger five hundred years ago ending up on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and revalued.[1] Mudlarking, when the term was first in use, was used to describe those who scavenged for valuable goods in rivers and sewers, sifting through rubbish for a lump of coal or dropped coin.[2] Since our trip with the Thames Discovery Programme, I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments and waste – what do we do with them? What do they tell us about middling culture?

Image Two: Items lost and found.

Mudlarking finds that make the news are those, we realised, that are both hard to find for the untrained eye and rare compared to the vast quantities of glass, pottery shards, single-use plastic and bones that litter the foreshore.[3] What we found was an abundance of fragments. Little pieces of clay pipe, bottle necks, terracotta pipe pieces and cow teeth. The waste of London: building debris and stuff that had washed down to the river from layers of construction work. These pieces were very had to judge: how old were they? What object did they form part of? Where are they from? All of these questions we largely saved until the end, going by our individual eye for colour and shape, with most of us ending up with a homogeneous selection of fragments we judged to be old or pretty.

These fragments are, in many ways, a useful way of thinking about evidence in archives as well as in archaeology, museums and collections, and the way in which it is coming together in this project to narrate hidden histories. Often, we might only have a small quantity of information about a person or object: a record of a parish clerk and his activities in the churchwardens’ accounts, but no will, inventory, baptism or marriage record; houses destroyed in war, renovation or fire; objects without a clear idea of where they come from. It’s the threading of a multitude of material and textual fragments together, which build a sense of cultural lives. So this trip taught us to look more closely at the broken things, those pieces of objects that might have formed part of a middling person’s tableware, like the olive-green glazed borderware pieces we found in abundance.

These small pottery fragments, when found in such plenty, also point to a hidden archive of things that were not necessarily treasured for long, and which had a lifetime dictated by their fragility or style. These ceramic and glass fragments reveal an archive of broken things that are not often recorded and are part of the everyday, non-expensive but also indispensable, objects that appear in-use in recipes or literature. The items we uncovered are those we most frequently overlook. Some things, as Michael Thompson argues, are ‘transient’; they are bought for a particular purpose, then disposed of, break or decay. Yet, when we pick up these pieces of pottery, we start to revalue them as important to understanding past activities.

 Another aspect of material culture the Thames foreshore confronted us with was dispossessed objects. What do you do with something that cannot be traced to a specific place, person or even an object? There were so many layers of broken things that had been washed up, and a great swathe were still being washed down river. Where did they come from? Did they come from a dump, from a commercial context like a potter or butcher, or from someone’s home? Does this change how we might read them as deposits? One of the beautiful things about mudlarking is that the river dictates the travel of fragments downstream, depositing by the weight of the materials, so doing its own sorting. As such, it was difficult to read the journeys of the things we picked up, with fragments of pipes seeming as alien as bits of delftware. In many ways, a lot of research is an exercise in re-homing the displaced: thinking about the original composition of a rebound manuscript in an archive, placing a letter alongside a portrait, or imagining a silver spoon in someone’s hand. The foreshore presents a challenge in judgment when thinking about provenance because there is just so much, and every piece could be read as a valuable fragment of evidence for craft practices, industry, tools and use, aesthetic taste, or leisure activities.

The river’s waste is fascinatingly revalued through mudlarking, and some items are lifted out of obscurity and carefully recorded. But another thing about these fragments is their geographical particularity. All of the rivers’ deposits have arrived into, been consumed or dumped within the Thames. Although this is a very large area, it struck me how mudlarking often seems to be a London-focused activity. It would be fascinating to know of people doing similar activities elsewhere in the UK, and to know how deposits in the Thames compare to other rivers. This experience has been an invaluable exercise in thinking about fragments and their implications, methodologically and practically, and also how they relate to middling lives, where individuals and objects might appear dispersed across documents, spaces and things.

Hannah Lilley


[1] Search the Portable Antiquities Scheme Database here for all sorts of things lost and found: <https://finds.org.uk/>, Bottle dumps: < https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-22336710>.

[2] ‘Mudlark’, OED. See also: Evans, F. (2017, 09). The river’s debris is my pleasure and my obsession. Apollo, 186, 29. Retrieved from: <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1935786815?accountid=8630&gt; and Sanderling, T. (2016, Oct 12). Just mudlarking about. Country Life,94-95. Retrieved from <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1828172610?accountid=8630&gt;.

[3] <https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/jun/09/tales-of-the-thames-joining-the-new-mudlarkers> and <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/mar/21/-sp-thames-mudlarking-foreshore-3d-pictures-audio-nick-stevens>

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