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>

Mudlarking in the Thames, Part 1: An Immediate Reflection

In the second chapter of Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, the novel’s elusive journalist imagines what would be discovered when Istanbul’s Bosphorus dries up: “Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries, will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic liners that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As [a] new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud. […]” (17).

Today, London’s Thames affords the mudlarkers on its banks a similar, less apocalyptic, vision.  Down on the foreshore countless shards and specks of ceramic and clay pipes roll back and forth in the wash, bearing witness to last meals and first smokes.  

Thanks to the Thames Discovery Programme, we went on a guided mudlarking expedition today in the area that Elizabethans would have known as Broken Wharf.

The north bank between Broken Wharfe and Queenhythe, from MoEML, showing the stretch of foreshore we combed.

A licence is required in order to “mudlark” (in short, to search for items), and we were covered by the TDP’s licence; they do guided Thames walks like these, if anybody is interested in joining in.  We combed the foreshore between here and the eerie, prehistoric place of Queenhithe: home to Tudor ships lading and unlading, Anglo Saxon burial mounds, and the crumbling ruins of the Roman city.  It’s a registered ancient monument (and so searching is not permitted in this stretch of shore), and it’s intriguing to think of this stretch of inclining shore as one of the most enduring structural features of London, visible and valuable across millennia. 

Queenhithe

Most astonishing about this experience was the immediacy and quantity of finds, in particular clay pipes.  We’d found four of these within minutes of descending the stairs underneath the Millennium Bridge: the expanse is littered chiefly with the stems of the pipes, ranging from bone thin to more solid, rudimentary constructions.  Among the rocks and detritus are also a number of the bowls that form the end of the pipes.  

Our finds…
Our finds…
Comparing discoveries: a makeshift foreshore museum…

Also widely scattered about are fragments of pottery from various centuries—small shards in the shadow of the Shard.  Most of what we discovered dated from between the medieval and twentieth century (with the layers of packed riverbed no doubt containing older treasures).  It included delftware from the seventeenth century, glazed border ware—that distinctive English pottery from medieval and early modern London—and varieties of transfer ceramics and mass-produced items from the nineteenth century.

A borderware example from the Portable Antiquities Scheme

As exciting as the tangible objects themselves was seeing the river swell in and out and bring with each wave of a passing Thames Clipper an eddy of floating clay pipes and flecks of ceramic.  It was a surprising vision of a river teeming with layers of history, and it prompted a reminder of the serendipity of historical investigation and the accidental gifts of an archive like the Thames.  Like an archive, the river and its holdings are curated and preserved and contain centuries of labour.  We were directed to the narrative of the river wall, for instance, which marks the different layers of flood defence built one on top of the other, concrete on brick on stone on sand; some 150 metres further back—up towards St Paul’s Cathedral—begins the Roman foreshore. All the ground beneath the tube station and the river’s edge is an expanse of ancient and ongoing embankment work, encroaching on and trying to contain the city’s principal feature. 

To the untrained eye, the experience also tests value judgements and aesthetic principles.  What assumptions underlay my guesswork about whether this shard was “old enough” or that decoration handmade or mass-produced?  Some of the more striking ceramic artefacts were the common borderware from the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, whose vivid green sheen caught the eye more than equally functional Victorian pottery or twentieth century China (or plastic margerine lids). We were rightly warned to be careful of modern sewage items—things flushed down the toilet; but the early modern privy and, for instance, the sewer infrastructure of sixteenth-century Southwark are areas of historical fascination (hopefully not just for me!).  How might we think about the layers of “ordinary” objects swilling around right now in the Thames, the dress hooks or trade tokens or drinking vessels used and exchanged by the individuals who are the focus of this project?  

When the Thames dries up, amid the doomsday chaos, alongside bottle caps and seaweed what diverse debris from the early modern everyday will we recover—and what should we be looking for in the meantime?

Callan Davies

Lucas de Heere’s Wives and Daughters

In the mid-1560s, artist and writer Lucas de Heere moved to London from Ghent in the Low Countries.  In his time in England, he produced works for leading figures at court while working with and teaching aspiring painters.  After having lived here some ten years, de Heere compiled a description of England and a run-down of its chief “wonders,” replete with brilliant sketches of contemporary figures in a manuscript (British Library Add MS 28330) that quite literally gives us a picture of life in mid-Elizabethan England.  

His images are arresting glimpses into the visual and material culture of the sixteenth century, and accordingly they represent a rich avenue of enquiry for a project such as ours—not least because they depict side-by-side the clothing, details, and practices of Elizabethans from across the social spectrum, from the Mayor and Aldermen of London to barons, MPs, and guardsmen:

British Library Add MS 28330. Lucas de Heere. Fo. 33r. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_MS_28330

In this sketch, de Heere brings together in four figures depictions of urban and provincial life: a wife of a citizen of London, a wife of a wealthy citizen of London, a young daughter, and a country-woman. The sketch therefore represents subtle differences in dress and comportment between degrees or sorts of people—between the wife and the rich wife, the urban citizen and the country dweller.  The country-woman is seemingly returning from the market or shops and is well dressed in frill neck and hat, though her white apron signifies a different way of navigating the social world to the city-dwellers; she holds gloves (a high-status accoutrement) in her left hand and poultry (a domestic workaday chore) in her other, perhaps distancing her from wealthier country households whose servants could take care of the shopping.  Each of these details raises questions about how we define middling status and its variability, about what qualifying words such as “rich” (‘riich’) and “citizen” (‘burgher’) do for this group, and about gender and age: where does a young daughter sit in relation to her parents (and the labour market); in what ways might a woman’s social standing rest upon her husband’s civic and economic status; and how do women’s labour and activities speak to the cultural experiences of middling people?  

Lastly, de Heere’s own activities and the social life of sketches such as these speak to other forms of middling culture.  Elizabeth Goldring has shown in her recent biography of the artist Nicholas Hilliard that de Heere had particularly close interactions with England’s goldsmiths (Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist, 79-83); indeed de Heere lived in London among an immigrant community of craftspeople that included glassblowers and stationers as well as goldsmiths (Returns of Aliens, ed. Kirk and Kirk: I, 441; II, 40).  Goldsmiths represent a particularly curious example of a group who spanned a range of middling experiences (from the JAMS, or the just-about-managing, in modern parlance, to the highly influential and well-off) and who produce a range of crafted outputs within their profession (and, in this period, including a growing a number of artists).  They are not only socially mobile but geographically mobile, trading in precious metals and, for the most successful, visiting London and the court to secure and deliver commissions. As such, they represent a group of “tastemakers” whose skills simultaneously respond to and influence elite interests but whose commercial realities remain in households and workshops in English cities.  

Our project begins its study of the “middling” in Bristol, where (as elsewhere in England) the goldsmiths, exceptionally, had no local mystery but were under the centralised management of the London guild; they are therefore a group for whom the relationship between local and national identity is especially charged.  How might the Bristolian goldsmith Humphrey Clovill’s household (which likely neighboured Nicholas Woolfe’s playhouse on Wine Street), with his moderate means and “wainescott, stayne clothes & pictures about the hall” (Bristol Probate Inventories I p.63 [1627]), fit into these experiences and representations?  More broadly, what is the relationship between craft-based skills and “middling” identities?  Behind De Heere’s sketch are the wider social networks of cultural production—one that sees goldsmiths, painters, and aristocrats conversing and collaborating, working at court while selling at home, and fundamentally pointing to the complex relationship between aesthetic creation and social status and mobility.  These are issues we’ll be pursuing over the next few years.

Callan Davies