Tag Archives: mudlarking

American Summer and English Autumn

16 Oct

I spent the summer with my siblings on Long Island, where I wanted to improve on last year’s lacklustre beach detecting results. To do so, I purchased a Minelab Excalibur II multi-freq detector and a chest harness for the machine; the Excal II is a heavy beast but it has a solid reputation on wet sand and in the surf.

I only took it out once, during a camping trip with my family while my parents were visiting. My dad had just expressed skepticism that anyone ever found anything of note on the beach when we were approached by a distressed and crying woman who related that she’d lost her wedding band and engagement ring. My dad and I each searched the general area she indicated, and there were smiles all round as we recovered both rings. Minelab retweeted my pics of the overjoyed couple; good advertising for them!

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I sold the Excal II after that one use. I loved it, but I didn’t have the time to spend on the beach. Frustratingly, I also lost my 300£ Deus backphones in a park near my sister’s place, so the summer’s detecting wasn’t all it might have been.

Soon, though, I was back in Blighty. During my first dig with the OBMDC lads and lasses in Fritwell, I found a grotty Roman, as well as a nice gilt flat button and some medieval and post-med buckles.

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The next week, along with my friend Gez, I attended my first rally, a small Rotary affair in the Chiltern Hills involving several clubs from the Southeast. The surroundings were lovely and it was nice having a food tent onsite, but stalks were thick on the ground, and I found nothing of note.

Soon after returning to the UK, I was hired as an archaeologist by MOLA and applied for membership of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. Unlike last year when I worked as a site assistant in Oxfordshire, this time I am a full field archaeologist on an urban Roman/medieval site, which has meant lots of on-the-job learning.

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Excavating a post-medieval well/cesspit, and finding a broken chamberpot in the fill:

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My first excavation, a wattled pit, which I dug with a co-worker, Matt:

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Because our dig site is only about 50 meters from the Thames, I pop down on lunch breaks whenever I have the opportunity. During my first week with MOLA, I found a Charles I twopence on Thursday, and a silver (Henry III?) penny the next day.

Mudlarking at Southbank in front of the Globe Theatre:

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The silver penny, along with an Indian coin, a modern twopence, and a bit of iron pyrite:

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The good luck continued at the excavation site near St Paul’s, where I surprised my coworkers by troweling up this Roman from a patch of plastered Roman concrete called opus signinum:

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Bolstered by my recent success on the Southbank foreshore, I set up a meeting with Ian Smith, Chairman of the Society of Thames Mudlarks, to ask about induction into the society. I have had a general foreshore permit for three years, and I am keen to apply to be one of about sixty real mudlarks. We met on a Saturday near Queenhithe, and he was kind to allow me take a picture of the hole he was digging with a mate (as mudlarks, they are allowed to do so).

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On Sunday the 27th September, I attended at OBMDC dig at Scotsgrove, near Thame. There were many Romans found on the field, upwards of thirty I think, and I had mine as well.

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Afterwards, I met with my friend Gabriel to help out with his cousin’s short sci-fi film featuring metal detecting:

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A picture on the reverse of one of my single context sheets from our excavation site. It shows a brick privy or soakaway in rough profile and bird’s-eye view.

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Pat C., one of my fellow archaeologists, is a sometime member of the Society of Thames Mudlarks. After work he showed me some of his favourite spots to lark and we shared some riverside libations. I found a handful of clad coins; Pat found some bag seals and the forked end of a push pole, which would have been used to keep boats off of the wall and bridge piers. It was clad in iron, and it had the initials of the probable former owner carved in it, ‘H H’.

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He also turned up (and gave to me) half of an 18th c. pipe-clay wig curler (upper left to the right of the pipe bowl). This is how a gentleman in the 1700s would have kept his elaborate wig looking fresh.


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This week while excavating a pit, I found a wooden box, possibly once used for the storage of valuables, though later it was backfilled with food waste and ultimately was buried. In the box I found 17 lead discs or flans. One of them was stamped with the shortcross design associated with medieval silver pennies, indicating that the lead was used either for practice die strikes in a minting operation, or else somehow for counterfeiting. I also found a quantity of waste lead. I may have surprised my colleagues by making the shortcross ID, which I wouldn’t have been able to do without my detecting and larking experience.

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Wooden planks at the base of the box where I discovered the minting supplies.

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Shakespeare, Marion, and Mudlarking (31st January 2014)

4 Jun

This update is four months late, but I wanted to include it nevertheless:

I was in London for a meeting of my philosophy reading group — established with Rob Schwartz under the direction of our undergraduate mentor, Dr Jim Faulconer. We were reading Jean-Luc Marion’s The Erotic Phenomenon after hours at Rob’s law firm in London. As we finished late, I crashed at Rob’s place in Chelmsford and then took an early train back to London with an eye towards standing in line for ticket returns at the National Theatre; Simon Russell Beale is playing Lear in a staging whose aesthetic owes something to the 20th c. experience of totalitarianism.

I was quite near the front of the line from 6 a.m. — drizzly weather — but an hour later I learned that Lear was dark that night. I rushed across the centre to another theatre hoping to score tix to Coriolanus, but as this picture makes clear, I arrived too late for any hope of returns.

photo 8I had to modify theatre plans, but it turned out to be a lovely day along the Thames.

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The only ‘finds’ were a couple of interesting pipe stems and this bit of pottery, which I preferred from amongst thousands of sherds for some reason and took with me:

photo (9)There were other interesting things on the foreshore, of course, including this oar and a Ganesha. 

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Maldon III (April 11th, 2013)

16 Apr

I thought I had finally cracked the code on the treasures surely lying beneath Chelmer mud in Maldon. The answer? Chest waders and snowshoes, which would allow me to dash atop the mud like a Sandpiper.

Kurt had to bow out of the expedition, and I like to think that it was because of his anniversary, and not that he’d been on the two prior trips. In the event, even my dad and I weren’t sure that we wanted to go; we stayed up until 1.30 am, and to catch low spring tide, we’d need to leave Oxford at 4. My dad was the one who suggested we see it through, however.

We arrived to rain, and after choking down a McDonald’s breakfast, we suited up. I had dreamed of using a bucket and classifier to dredge the silt and mud beneath Fullbridge — a Bodleian book on the Blackwater Estuary noted that the site of the bridge was a ford in pre-Roman days — and this time, dressed as we were, we made it all the way down there. Unfortunately, I quickly determined that the shopping cart jutting up from the sludge probably wasn’t of Roman origin. The mud was simply too deep. A backhoe could probably unearth generations of treasure, but I would have to let it go.

We did make lots of eyes-only modern coinage finds. My dad even found a pound coin. We ended up with 1.15 GBP and some corroded iron spikes. We were glad to have taken the journey together, but it appears that Byrthnoth’s ghost will be keeping Maldon’s treasure for awhile yet.

Oh, and the snowshoes? Great it you’re walking along the mud. If you stop for even a moment though, they sink and become cement shoes… (hours detecting: 1.5).

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Return to Maldon

27 Mar

Armed with waders (well, one of us, at least), snowshoes, a floating sieve, and a glass-bottomed coffee can for seeing beneath the surface refraction of the river, we returned to Maldon to make another attempt at the foreshore’s secrets.

Low (spring) tide was at 6.33 am, so we had to get quite an early start. There were other difficulties, too, including a broken snowshoe, and our inability to work together as only one of us could dare the mud.

On the positive side, I began to sort out the signals the AT PRO was giving me in some very challenging ground (tidal water with plenty of junk iron). There were little rivulet intake streams cutting into the profound drifts of mud on their way to join the river; in periods of storm these must become more pronounced to drain adjacent inland areas, and they seemed likely spots for metal/coinage losses. In a couple of these I did find modern coins, and I also found an old spike of metal, probably lead.

After the tide came in, setting our bucket adrift and almost carrying it off, Kurt and I drove past the stature of the Saxon warrior Byrthnoth, who defended Maldon (unsuccessfully) from Danish Viking raiders in 991. Like the raiders, I suspect we will return to the river at some point, better armed and clad for its perils…

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Just a (mud)lark.

26 Feb

Just as a (mud)lark.

These are the passport-style photos I took for my Permit to Search the Thames Foreshore. The foreshore is the expanse of riverbed or beach that is exposed by the fluctuation of the tides. In the UK, most tracts of foreshore (and beaches and estuaries and so on) are owned by the Crown Estate (more or less by the Queen).

People known as mudlarks — historically often children, the infirm, or criminals — have been scavenging bits of treasure or usable stuffs from the river for hundreds of years. In theory, anyone can walk down the foreshore during low tide, but you need a permit to detect or dig.

Here’s a short vid of an American Garrett representative (I think it’s Garrett’s son, actually) detecting on the Thames foreshore: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDoSnHNM5Zg

If you were the Queen, would you give a permit to someone looking as scruffy as I do in the photos? True mudlarking style!