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

Members of the public scouring the area at low tide (‘mudlarking’ as it’s more commonly known) is by no means a new pastime. In the Victorian ages it was a full time occupation for the destitute hoping to make a living from what they managed to recover. This would 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.

Mudlarks of Victorian London (The Headington Magazine, 1871)

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 and earthenware fragments are just some of the more common relics to be found. Tobacco was brought to England from the Americas in the 1580s, but was initially very expensive to purchase, thus pipes tended to be small as a result. This helps archaeologists to 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.

The first known image of a man smoking a pipe, from Chute’s Tabaco (1595). Source: Wikipedia

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.

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 researched and dated by a member of the English Heritage at the Jewel Tower, and although the results can’t be exact, they give a rough approximation of age and use: www.english-heritage.org.uk

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The Jewel Tower, Westminster, Souce: Wikipedia
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Glazed tile dating between 1250-1540. Due to the composition it is likely this was from flooring to a building in London around this period. Note the decorative glazing still visible on the top
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Late 16th century Delftware or Delft pottery, also known as Delft Blue – Dutch tin-glazed earthenware. Though the exterior colour is now purple it would have been blue originally. This can be seen on the opposite side from the piece below.
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Tripod leg from kitchenware dated around 1650. Note the base bears the imprint of the potter’s thumb when it was originally molded. The dark marks are charring which would indicate this was probably a pot use for heating food on a stove
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Glaze from the inside of the tripod leg and pot is still evident. This would have been used to waterproof the contents
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Pipehead from 1670. Clay pipes came in all shapes and sizes, with earlier versions (such as the one above) relatively small due to how expensive tobacco was to come by in the early days. As it became more widely available the pipe size increased
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