How Was Your Day … Archaeologist on the Thames?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
By Fiona Zublin
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
I was down at the river at 7 this morning, to lead a walk. My work is entirely unlike a lot of people’s, in that it’s entirely tide dependent — you can only go at low tide.
I call it beachcombing, which is very different from mudlarking. Mudlarking has an implication of digging, and unless you have a permit you are not allowed to dig. In the 1860s, when stuff was off-loaded from ships, you got a lot of stuff dropping into the mud, and you got a lot of kids going down into the mud to see what they could find, for the family to use or to be sold to raise money. Kids were the first mudlarks and it sort of escalated from there. There’s the Society of Mudlarks, but you have to be formally invited to join.
We don’t dig, except if we find human bones. Then we have to tell the police so they can check if it’s a modern thing. There’s a wealth of animal bones down there, but if we find human material we always lift it. We found one Bronze Age skeleton that’s got evidence of trepanning — a hole drilled in its skull — and that’s on display at the Museum of London as the first evidence of surgery.
I’m an archaeologist first, but I do walks for the public through London Walks. Before we go down I always issue people a pair of gloves, for health and safety. Technically, Wellingtons would be the best footwear — if you got stuck in deep Thames mud you could wriggle your feet out of them, but they are freezing in December. I know where all the soft patches are, so I wear an old pair of trainers. I do get people turning up for tours in jelly shoes and flip-flops, but I specify sensible shoes: There’s always going to be glassware on the shore, especially if you’re near pubs.
I used to teach primary school, before I had my six kids. And then I went into archaeology. My first term at University College London they were just beginning to look at the material from the Thames — everyone said you couldn’t use it because it had no provenance, it was all muddled. I went down to the Thames at Bermondsey and I was fascinated — this stuff was just sitting there. The earliest material I’ve physically got from the river is a hand ax that’s 10,000 years old. You’ve got stone tools, metal tools, one of the two Iron Age fish traps in the whole country. We’ve got trees and forests from the Mesolithic, but we don’t take people there. That’s a very dangerous site: It’s serious, serious mud, and the only way out is a police launch and a rope.
For about 150 years they were dredging the river, and the dredgers would bring these things up and sell them to collectors during the Victorian period. A lot of the big Thames collections have been donated by antiquarians, so we knew there was a lot there. I have two or three boxes of 20th-century materials. I call it the archaeology of the future, because it’s all archaeology. We get modern weapons, and bullets from gangs; I’ve got a World War II incendiary-bomb cap courtesy of Hermann Göring.
My own personal research is on the Thames — I’ve been working on the stretch of the Thames between Blackfriars Bridge and London Bridge for 20 years. We’re constantly monitoring; we’re constantly recording the exposure and disappearance of structures. Just near London Bridge I’ve got a Roman structure and 40 ancient trees; I won’t take tours near them because they would just disintegrate. Americans on tours pick up Tudor artifacts from the shore, and I tell them they’re from the 1500s, and they say, “That’s older than my country.”