09 August 2011

"In, As You Say, the Mud"

   [History Channel UK's Mud Men preview]

"In, As You Say, the Mud"*

A friend of mine shared an article on Facebook some time ago that captured my interest in an enthusiast form of archaeology for the masses called "mudlarking."

Mudlarking . . . such a delightfully British word.
Its definition is a verb meaning to scrape about in the mud of a riverbank during low tide with the objective of looking for valuable "trash" deposited in the sediment. Traditionally the mudlark looked for items with monetary value, but in more recent times these treasure hunters are also seeking items with cultural value.

The specific name for this activity has its roots in the nineteenth-century professional mudlarks (or "mudlarkers," I've seen them called both) who were often lower class children or women, digging with the desperation of hunger to find lumps of coal or precious metal items that they could sell or trade for food and other necessities. [Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, And Those That Will Not Work, Volume IV, in four volumes, (London: 1861-1862), p. 366-367, 371.] Charles Dickens likewise wrote a short story, “Young Mr. Nightingale,” about a boxing match between a baker and a mudlark in All The Year Round (November 29, 1873). Some of the period illustrations of nineteenth-century mudlarks are collected by this blog author here.

One article that I read, stated that one can still list "Mudlark" as an official professional title in Britain, but another source claimed the job title went out in the 1900s. Either way, there are still people who can be thought of as professional mudlarks in London today. They are bound in a fraternity known as the Society of Thames Mudlarks, who with metal detectors in hand unearth relics. They differ from their amateur counterparts because they are required to have a license from the Port Authority of London to dig in special areas along the bank. The tongue-in-cheek amusement you may find on the home page of The Thames and Field Metal Detecting Society 
will turn to amazement when you scroll down the page to see their treasure haul.
Possibly every child who dreamt of buried pirate treasure should admire the discoveries of these excavators in the Thames who have found coins from all time periods since the Romans ruled in Londinium, to antique weapons, jeweled Anglo-Saxon necklaces, to a prize collection of gentleman's cuff links spanning the Capitol's conspicuous consumption from the seventeenth-century to the twentieth. There’s a wonderful homage to mudlarkers and their finds in the pictures on this blog entry. The British public’s recent interest in the phenomena of mudlarking is evident in the UK History Channel's reality TV show called “Mud Men.”

Trash Becomes Cultural Treasure
Two aspects fascinate me most about this subject. First, I have come to think of mudlarking as a form of poplar archaeology; in other words, people are out their consciously seeking old things buried in the banks of waterways for their heritage (and/or monetary) value.  Second, that the UK government is opening its eyes to the idea that cultural heritage can be preserved by asking mudlarks (professional and amateur) to record their finds of artifacts.  In Britain, the government actually wrote a law in 1996 called The Treasure Act which governs objects at least 300 years old or made of precious metal found in England or Wales (The laws are different in Scotland and Northern Ireland). See information at: http://finds.org.uk/treasure/advice/summary.
Four years ago, The British Museum established a department that focuses solely on Portable Antiquities, and aides in recording cultural artifacts that a member of the public might find on their own property, on public lands, or on the river bank. The folks at the British Museum who administer the Portable Antiquities scheme have several jobs. They monitor for the possible illegal sale of archaeological artifacts and/or treasures at antique shops and online through websites like EBay.com.  

I checked the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s online database and already 146 cases of treasure finds have been recorded for 2011 with 53358 objects recorded; last year, there were 233,345 objects recorded throughout England and Wales. Many of these finds are not the result of mudlarking. The Portable Antiquities Scheme website has made it easier for the British public to report archaeological objects that they have found either by accident or by design. The reports and statistics suggest that the legal actions to create a system to record cultural heritage discoveries is actually fueling an interest in public archaeology and of voluntary efforts to record when and where an artifact was discovered. (see a discussion of the release of the 2008 report from the British Museum: http://finds.org.uk/news/stories/article/id/214).
The British Museum’s success with the Portable Antiquities project staged an exhibit called "Buried Treasure" in 2004. (See an online version of major treasure finds that were featured in the exhibit here. Several reviews gave me a feel for this exhibit including a National Geographic article (fall 2004) on Society of Thames Mudlarks and their finds and a review from Archaeology Magazine (Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004).
My foray into the history and culture of mudlarking in the past and present has caused me to think about how my own nation deals with artifacts found on public and private property. The mish-mash of state and federal laws in the United States, requires a degree in law to figure out who potential owns a find and likely supports the career of armies of attorneys.  My country’s laws are based upon English Common Law from the 18th century but there is nothing so neatly universal at the The Treasure Act of 1996 here. A lawyer penning an article on this subject for the Archaeological Institute of America in 2000 was quite happy to pronounce the various treasure trove laws in some States dead, writing that “Rejection of the rules that reward finders at the expense of landowners also strengthens anti-looting provisions, and discourages casual, but potentially destructive unplanned searches. Indeed, removal of artifacts from the soil is now recognized in the majority of states either as illegal severance of chattels, trespass, or theft. Modern [U.S.] law has recognized and resolved the problem, leaving no room for royal prerogatives (online at Archaeology, “Online Features,” February 7, 2000).

In a world so interconnected through information, I think it is important to cherish the artifacts of the past for all of their complexity and cultural meaning. We inherit not only the gold coins and riches from past cultures, but also the refuse of our predecessors’ daily existences, like toothbrushes, pottery jars, and trappings of status. It is the brush with the past and the potential for great stories, if only the objects could talk. If only we would listen.
Here are a three more personal accounts of mudlarking to whet your appetite:
The author of the “Number One London” blog write about an encounter with mudlarks on the Thames. A journalist for the UK newspaper,
 The Independent, writes about the buried treasure allure of mudlarking in  “The Thames: Another tide, another secret” (from 11 September 2005). And, last but not least, a New York Times Magazine correspondent also posted a nicely-illustrated, curious tourist’s guide to mudlarking in this article.

*Title quotation source: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (New York : Harmony Books, 1980).

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