Pulling Treasure From The Thames With London's 'Mudlark' "Mudlarks" were the people who made a living picking objects out of the mud along the River Thames. Writer Lara Maiklem follows in their tracks; she chronicles her journeys in a new book, Mudlark.
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London's 'Mudlark' Pulls Treasure From The Thames

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London's 'Mudlark' Pulls Treasure From The Thames

London's 'Mudlark' Pulls Treasure From The Thames

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Centuries ago, poor children scraped a living from the mud along London's River Thames, scavenging among the bones and trash that washed down from the city. They were called mudlarks, and their work was dirty and dangerous. Today, people still pick things out of the river mud, but now they're looking for bits of the city's history. Writer Lara Maiklem is one of these modern-day mudlarks and has written a book called - you guessed it - "Mudlark." NPR's Petra Mayer met up with her on the banks of the Thames.

PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: On the north side of the river, between a pub and a railway bridge, there's a rickety metal staircase down to another world - or rather, several worlds, layered on top of each other and jumbled together in the slightly stinky river mud.

What are these round glass things?

LARA MAIKLEM: It's the bottom of an old Victorian beer bottle.

MAYER: It's a bright, blowy day. Seagulls are wheeling overhead. Barges pass by in the background. And everywhere I look, there are little fragments of history. Lara Maiklem is an able guide to all this history. She's been mudlarking for more than 15 years. And her book is a detailed tour of both the Thames and the treasures you can find there, like this mysterious brown thing that I've just dug out of the mud.

This looks like a piece of pottery here.

MAIKLEM: That could be Roman. It hasn't got any glaze on it, and it's got some quite large inclusions in it. So it could be a piece of Roman pottery. Well done.

MAYER: Yay. Yay me.

We're basically walking on a giant garbage dump, Maiklem says - shattered pottery, chunks of Roman heating duct, roof tiles scarred by the Great Fire of London, glass bottles and clay pipes and so many bones, the relics of centuries of dinners. These objects tell everyday stories about lives that don't end up in the history books.

MAIKLEM: I'm finding these ordinary pieces that perhaps, almost undoubtedly, nobody's touched since the last person who dropped it. Even the prehistoric flints, you know - the last person to touch that was the person who was maybe, you know, throwing a spear at some animal that doesn't even exist anymore. And to reach down and pick that up is like reaching back through time into history itself. And it's the closest thing I can imagine to time travel.

MAYER: And I should point out here that not everyone can just climb down onto the foreshore and start time traveling. You have to have an official permit, which Maiklem does. And she says some of her very favorite ordinary objects to find are pins.

MAIKLEM: So if you look down here very carefully, I can see one there - just here.

MAYER: I would never have spotted that.

MAIKLEM: So this is handmade. They date from 1400 to about 1800. The pinning industry in this country was huge - so huge that they actually imported pins from France, as well, because everybody was pinned into their clothes. So those elaborate ruffs that you see Elizabeth I wearing took hundreds of pins to put together. But they dropped and lost a lot because they were wearing a lot. And they wash together in certain areas. So if you could find a patch...

MAYER: I think I see one right here.

MAIKLEM: The pins - have you got one?

MAYER: Is that one by my toe?

MAIKLEM: Just there?

MAYER: Yeah.

MAIKLEM: Yeah, just there.

MAYER: I feel like you've had to become a historian to understand all the things that you find out here.

MAIKLEM: I suppose so. I mean, I'm not an archaeologist, and I'm not a historian. I never pretend to be one. I'm just - I'm a history seeker, I suppose. And it spurs you into researching when you find these things.

MAYER: Maiklem does work with historians. She has a Facebook page where she posts her finds, and a community has grown up around it, dedicated to puzzling them out. She's also taken pieces to university history departments and museums. And she says it's really important to report what you find. The U.K. has a program called the Portable Antiquities Scheme that documents the treasures found by metal detectors and mudlarks.

MAIKLEM: This is our history. It's our heritage. Take it home and stick it in a drawer and forget about it is criminal, I think.

MAYER: At the end of the afternoon, Maiklem spreads out our finds on a convenient riverside rock, arranging them chronologically from a Roman mosaic tile to a 17th-century clay pipe to a shard of blue and white Victorian pottery, a miniature history of England picked from the river mud.

Petra Mayer, NPR News, London.

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