Under the microscope: discoveries from the Thames…

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The Thames is one of my favourite spots in the capital, not only for a moment of quiet contemplation but also as a great place for sightseeing many of the city’s most iconic monuments. But there’s more, for when the tide draws back twice a day the river gives up many of its secrets from London’s past…

Having been the major artery for traffic both in and out of the city for many hundreds of years it’s not surprising that over time its been used as a rubbish dump. With thick mud at its foundation many everyday objects have become preserved over the years. When the foreshore is exposed, a plethora of items materialize, some dating as far back as the Roman occupation of London.

Members of the public scouring the area at low tide is by no means a new pastime. Mudlarking, as it’s more commonly known, dates back to the Victorian ages when it was a full time occupation for the destitute hoping to make a living from what they managed to recover. This could lead to dangerous consequences, either by misjudging how long the tide was out for or by contracting diseases from frequent contact with the river’s long polluted water.

Today, walks are permitted as long as you have the necessary permits and are generally part of an experienced, organised group, well-skilled in navigating the Thames at low tide. Most of the items recovered are generally so mundane you wouldn’t normally give a second glance to, but what’s fascinating is how much they are able to reveal about the period of time they originated from. Clay pipes are just some of the more common relics to be found. When tobacco was brought to England from the Americas in the 1580s it was initially very expensive to purchase, thus pipes tended to be small as a result. This fact helps archaeologists date them easily, as the older the pipe, the smaller they usually are. Pipes of this nature would normally be bought, smoked and discarded, very much in the way cigarette buts are to this day.

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Most of the pipes found on the foreshore today tend to have stems removed, either from when they were originally discarded, or when they became blocked and were snapped off by the user in order to draw in the smoke more easily.

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The Jewel Tower in Westminster has a lovely collection of items recovered, and for a small donation you can own a piece of London history for yourself. The Tower is a historical wonder in itself, dating back to the 14th-century and a surviving part of the original Palace of Westminster. Surrounded by a moat, this three storey building was constructed in Kentish limestone to house the original treasures of Edward III.

Note: All items below were purchased by English Heritage at the Jewel Tower: www.english-heritage.org.uk

Earthenware fragments discovered on the Thames 

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