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When The Tide Goes Out, Mudlarks Dig Into The Thames In Search Of History


This is FRESH AIR. A gold ornament from the 16th century, ancient Roman coins, shards of medieval pottery, prehistoric flint - these are just some of the thousands of historical treasures our guest Lara Maiklem has found searching the banks of London's River Thames. The river is tidal, so twice a day it retreats, exposing its muddy riverbed and the amazing amount of historical stuff stuck in it. Maiklem says she's obsessed with pouring over the mud in search of these things lost to history. The hobby is called mudlarking, a term used in the Victorian period to refer to poor mostly women and children who would scour the water's edge for anything of value to sell.

Maiklem has written a new book called "Mudlark: In Search Of London's Past Along The River Thames." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Well, Lara Maiklem, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I guess, actually, you went down to the river today, but you snuck in a quick visit before coming here to talk to us today. So did you find anything?

LARA MAIKLEM: I did. I got really cold as well. I was freezing down there. I didn't have enough clothes on. Yes, I did. I found a piece of Roman pottery, a musket ball, a coin - I think it's probably 18th century; it's very, very worn; I need to clean it up - lots of pins. What else did I find? And a piece of a medieval jug handle. So it's not bad for an hour.

BRIGER: That's an hour. That's what you found in just one hour. That's amazing.

MAIKLEM: Yes. Yes.

BRIGER: And how big a space were you just looking at an hour to find all these things?

MAIKLEM: This time, I - not a great - not a big space. I was up again on Tuesday, and I found a really great spot, and I found loads of stuff there. So I was going back to that spot, but the tide didn't fall low enough. So I hung around there for a little while, and that was a fairly small area. And then I wandered along the foreshore a little bit further, and then I looked at another fairly small spot. I find I find more if I keep my areas fairly small.

BRIGER: So the river goes out at low tide, and the tide can vary, I guess, you've said from 15 to 22 feet. And that uncovers this area which is called the foreshore, and that's the space between the high and low tide, and that's where you look for things, right?

MAIKLEM: That's right, yes. You can search the tidal Thames, and the tidal Thames is from Teddington in West London right the way out to the estuary.

BRIGER: All right. Well, let's get to some basics. Please tell us what the word mudlark means. And where does that word come from?

MAIKLEM: Mudlarks today are, basically, people who go down on to the foreshore of the River Thames. The Thames is tidal. So twice every 24 hours it drops low enough for us to get onto the foreshore and, basically, search the riverbed for objects of historic importance or interest. So these are things that have been lost over two millennia, since the Romans arrived and settled the area that we now call London. And they've been lost and thrown away and dropped into the river, and they gradually wash up. And if you're lucky, you go down there and you find things.

But the word mudlark is quite an old word. It was first written about at the end of the 18th century by a man called Patrick Colquhoun, who is the person who began the Thames River Police. And he started the river police as a way of protecting the West India ships that were lying at anchor in the river waiting to unload. And they could wait for up to six months to unload their precious cargoes of sugar and spice and rum. And they were being preyed on by all these groups of criminals who would sneak aboard and steal these things.

And at the bottom of this hierarchy of criminals was the mudlarks, and they were the people who were scavenging around the hulls of the ships at low tide for anything they could sell or use. And they'd receive these packages of spices and bladders of rum and convey them to the taverns at Rotherham and Wapping and then into the black market. But the mudlarks were most written about in Victorian times by the social commentators of the time. And they wrote really beautifully about these people, who were mainly old people and children and women.

And they were, again, at the bottom of the heap of scavengers. So they're people who went down into the mud at low tide. And if you think, in the mid-1800s, the Thames was little more than a moving sewer, a cesspit. It was just revolting. And they would wander around, and they'd pick up pieces of coal and a copper nail if they were lucky or bones or anything they could scavenge to sell to getting themselves out of the workhouse.

BRIGER: And why are these objects so well preserved in the mud?

MAIKLEM: The mud's anaerobic, which means that once they're in the mud the oxygen is kept away from them. So without any oxygen, they can't degrade or rust so quickly. So that's why you find leather perfectly preserved, iron objects so much better preserved than you'd find them in a field, for example. And people have even found cloth, fabric.

BRIGER: But then once it's taken out of the mud, what happens to it?

MAIKLEM: Once it's out of the mud, it really is a race against time. With leather objects, if they dry out, they start to curl and shrink and crack, and wooden objects start to split. So it's really a matter of preserving them as well as you can. We're so lucky in London. We have so much stuff. Almost as soon as they start to dig into the soil anywhere in London, you start to find things. So the museums just don't have the resources to conserve everything that comes out of the river, so much of it's left to mudlarks to try and conserve things as well as they can, really.

BRIGER: And some of the ways you preserve things is you just stick it in the back of your freezer for a couple years. Isn't that right?

MAIKLEM: I do, yes. I know there's probably museum people out there cringing in horror at some of my rather unorthodox methods, but I found that with wooden objects - I find wooden combs that date back to sort 15th, 16th century, and they're of boxwood, which is very hard, a tight-grained wood. And I found the best way to preserve these without them starting to split and crack is to wrap them in - I think you call it Saran wrap - cling film. And then I put them in the bottom of the freezer. It sort of helps the drying process, I find, anyway. And then I - then if I dry the piece of wood slowly after that, it does seem to stop it from splitting quite so badly.

BRIGER: It's pretty amazing how quickly things erode once you've taken them out of the mud. You've said that you've gotten brightly colored objects that, once it's in the air, you actually see the color vanishing in front of your eyes.

MAIKLEM: I have. Specifically, it was a toothpaste lid. In the olden days, they use to - in Victorian times, they use to supply toothpaste or tooth powder in these beautiful ceramic pots, and they had very bright lids. And I found one out on the estuary, and as soon as it came out of the mud, it was beautiful. It was really bright, vibrant colors. And before my eyes, it just faded away. It was almost like "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" - you know, like, watching one of their skulls go and dissolve into dust.


MAIKLEM: But it did just fade away into these sort of - you could still see it was colored, but it just wasn't - it just lost its vibrancy.

BRIGER: You say that there's two kinds of mudlarks. There's the hunters and gatherers. Can you describe those two groups?

MAIKLEM: Yes, I - in the book, I do describe them as hunters and gatherers. There are - I would describe myself as a gatherer. I don't use a metal detector. I go down there for a number of reasons. I go down there to find peace and quiet and to commune with history. I find history very - a very grounding, relaxing kind of thing to commune with, I suppose. And I just look. I just relax. I let myself go, and I just get lost in the moment. And I just look. And if I come away with nothing, that really doesn't matter because for me, mudlarking is about so much more than the find. The hunters I describe as the people who use metal detectors, who dig, who are more focused on the finds than the experience of actually being there and finding it. They tend to be the people who are looking for coins, metal objects and what you might call treasure.

BRIGER: And you're kind of opposed to this, the hunter-gathering method, right?

MAIKLEM: In certain areas. I think the problem with the foreshore is our foreshore is eroding very, very quickly. We're losing so much archaeology to erosion. It's speeded up over the last 20 years because of the increased river traffic we've got. If you're down there and one of the riverboats comes past, you'll notice a huge wave come up, and then it'll suck out again. And in places, we've lost, you know, feet of foreshore, and it's washing away larger pieces of archaeology. There's a medieval jetty in Greenwich that's completely washing away. So where people are digging and scraping, it's destabilizing the foreshore, and it's speeding up this process of erosion, which is going to happen anyway. But if you start to dig in something that's quite firm and stable, it makes it much softer, and the river gets its - sort of gets into it much faster. And I've watched it happen. I've watched it - areas of the foreshore that have been dug over disappear very quickly.

BRIGER: Well, why don't we take a quick break? If you're just joining us, my guest is Lara Maiklem. Her new book is called "Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames." This is FRESH AIR.


BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is Lara Maiklem, whose new book is called "Mudlark: In Search Of London's Past Along The River Thames." And it's about how she goes down to the foreshore of the Thames, which is the space between the high and low tides, and finds these amazing objects from antiquity.

Let's talk about how disgusting the river can be sometimes. I mean, it used to be pretty much an open sewer. It was - in the 19th century, it was disgusting. Now it seems to be cleaned up a lot, but it can still be pretty gross down there, right?

MAIKLEM: It can. I mean, if you think - in the 1950s, the Thames between Gravesend and Fox Hollow was declared biologically dead. There wasn't a single living creature in the Thames. There was so much industrial waste and sewage going in. In the 1800s, it was just a moving cesspit, like you said. There were bodies of animals. There was all of London's waste going straight in there. And it just moved very slowly up and down, and this slurry barely moved. Then Bazalgette came along and built his sewers that, yes, took the sewage away from central London but dumped it just further downstream just east of London. So it's still there, you know?

BRIGER: Right. And it's a tidal river, so that would often come up anyway, right?

MAIKLEM: Absolutely. It wasn't washing straight out into the river. It was going up and down a lot. And then during the war, The Blitz destroyed a lot of the sewers, so there was raw sewage pouring in again after the Second World War along with the industrial waste. So it really was, you know, in a terrible state by the 1950s. It was biologically dead, and it was decided it had to be cleaned up. So the fact that we now have over 125 different species of fish in the river, we've got lobsters living in the estuary and the oysters have returned is incredible. It's made this amazing recovery, but it's still not the cleanest river. It's very clean. It's a very urban river. It's one of the cleanest urban rivers in the world, but we still get sewage spills. We live with Bazalgette's sewers still. We've got Victorian sewage system. So when it rains very heavily, instead of all of the sewage bubbling up through into people's houses and into the streets, they have to let it go into the river. So there's quite a lot of raw sewage still going into the Thames, which is why I wear gloves.

They're building, at the moment, a super sewer that goes underneath the Thames. And that, hopefully, will solve the problem of these sewage spills, and the Thames will become even cleaner, which will be great. It's got that river-y (ph) smell, the Thames. You know, rivers do smell like rivers. They're not clean like the sea, I suppose. They haven't got that clean smell. But I don't mind it. I quite like it.

BRIGER: A lot of the times, you're finding fragments of things like shards of pottery. And how did you figure out what it is that you were actually looking at?

MAIKLEM: I spend a lot of time in museums and online looking at things. For me, it's - mudlarking is, yes, about going down onto the foreshore and finding things. But also, you've then got the rest of the week to research this object.

BRIGER: And there's all these experts, right? There's experts in practically everything. You have a list in your acknowledgments of the, you know, experts of clay pipes and buttons and coins. I mean, there's all these people that have these niche interests, right?

MAIKLEM: There are. I love them. They're bonkers. They - I've met so many interesting people, but they specialize in such niche areas. You know, the people fascinate me as much as the objects. Yeah, so I've met these brilliant people, and they're all so generous with their knowledge. But also, I should say that you need a permit to go mudlarking. And as part of your permit, you have to report any finds of historic importance.

So you have access to what are called the finds liaison officers who work for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is part of this fantastic project that's recording all - they've recorded now over a million objects that have been found in our fields and foreshores and beaches as sort of stray finds. They're the sort of lost objects that they're recording. And finds liaison officers then have access to all the specialists in the museums. So there is this network of people that you can access to try and identify the things that you found.

BRIGER: Right. You actually say that if you find something that's actually considered treasure, it's considered owned by the crown.

MAIKLEM: It is. Under U.K. law, anything that's - this is very simply put, but made of a certain percentage of precious metal and over 300 years old effectively belongs to the queen. So you have to, by law, report it. And then it goes through a whole process where the coroner declares it as treasure. It's valued. It's offered to museums if they want to buy it. If they do want to buy it, then the finder gets half the value, and the landowner - in this case, it's the Port of London Authority - gets half the value. Or you can opt to donate it.

So I've had a couple of things that have been reported as treasure. I've got back most of them. Just one thing, which was a gold Tudor 16th-century lace end - very decorated lace end - which is part of a mini-hoard that's coming out of a part of the foreshore that I'm not going to mention (laughter) - and I've donated that to the Museum of London because they're collecting as much of it as they can.

BRIGER: Can you give us an example of one of your most prized possessions?

MAIKLEM: My favorite find is - it's a child's Tudor shoe. That's not easy to say. But (laughter) it's this little, tiny leather shoe, and it's complete. I pulled it out of the mud absolutely perfect. And it looked like it had been lost yesterday. It's got the little creases over the top where, you know, whoever's foot was bending in it. And when I first found it, when I looked inside it - when I cleaned it up and looked inside it, I could see where their heel and their toes - little faint imprints. And that, to me, is more precious than treasure and gold. That's my kind of treasure because it's just this link with an individual from 500 years ago.

I mean, the magic for me with mudlarking is that moment that you reach back through the years and you touch something that hasn't - that you know hasn't been touched since the last person who owned it or dropped it touched it. And it's nothing like it. It's almost indescribable, that moment that you pick something up. And that's where I really get my kick.

BRIGER: Lara Maiklem, thanks so much for being here.

MAIKLEM: You're welcome. Thank you for inviting me.

GROSS: Lara Maiklem spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Her new book is called "Mudlark: In Search Of London's Past Along The River Thames."

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Fred Kaplan about the secret history of America's nuclear war planning, with singer-songwriter Amy Rigby, who has a new memoir, or with Richard Hasen, author of the new book "Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, And The Threat To American Democracy," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Thea Chaloner. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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Sam Briger