Living my entire life on or near the coast of Massachusetts, I’ve kind of taken it for granted that any walk on a beach of my home state might turn up treasures beyond a pretty scallop shell or a tumbled piece of rose quartz. This part of the US has been settled since the early 1600s, and over years of beach strolling, I’ve found my share of prizes: clay pipe stems, shards of pottery and glass (and a few intact pieces!), interesting bits of metal from fishing weights to the working mechanism of an oil lamp. My favorite finds include a tiny plate from a doll’s tea set, several ink bottles, and a large piece of early seventeenth century redware pottery.

So it was with great delight and fellow-feeling that I recently devoured Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames. Mudlarking is the term (dating back to the 18th century) for rummaging around on the shore of a river or harbor, looking for lost and cast-off items that might be of use; in the last several years, it has more or less become the act of wandering the edges of the Thames at low tide (the Thames below Richmond—where Hampton Court Palace is—is subject to the tide) looking for…well, treasure. Of course, “treasure” is a relative term, so while some do their mudlarking with metal detectors, looking for money or jewelry, others (like Ms. Maiklem) mudlark for the sheer love of history, of connecting to the past through the bits and bobs she finds on her mudlarking trips.

And what bits and bobs she finds! The Thames has hosted human settlements back to the Neolithic, so her collection spans everything from stone tools to Bronze and Iron Age finds, through Roman coins and mosaic tiles to medieval potsherds, Tudor jewelry, eighteenth century Chinese porcelain, and so on up to the present era.

The book is divided into sections about each stretch of the Thames. In each, Ms. Maiklem entwines the history of that part of the river with accounts of some of her visits and what she has found, juxtaposed with snippets of autobiographical and family history that lend a personal and often moving edge to the narrative. It’s a lovely, absorbing read, and I know that when I finally get back to visit London, I’m going to find a mudlarking trip to join. In the meanwhile, however, there’s always the beach right here…

Have you ever been mudlarking? Where did you go, and what did you find?





Mudlarking! — 3 Comments

  1. Here on the west coast of the US we have our fair share of shipwrecks but only dating back as far as 17th C (Spanish). Our native tribes were hunter gatherers with few settlements or durable goods. Finding an arrowhead is an amazing treasure.

    But once we found a Japanese fishing float! These are fairly common, but the professionals go out first thing in the morning to scarf up all the treasures for gift shops. To find intact shells and floats is amazing. We treasure it 40 years later and work hard at not including it in the periodic “downsizing” and getting rid of useless dust catchers.

  2. Being south of a world-class port, we find all kinds of stuff that probably is from the enormous containerships sitting out there. Back when I was a kid, there were shells (and oil blobs) but sadly, no more shells. I hope the critters have moved farther down the coast.

  3. Thor and I are oddities in that most of our beach-coming treasures are interesting rocks — bringing home the “rock of the walk.” But we had a fun time visiting Lyme Regis in England, where Thor the paleontologist was poking around for fossils in the clay mud. We found some interesting old bottles and pieces of crockery, too.