Where the Mudlarks Are
Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.
Where we are: Germany. The UK’s Covid numbers were increasing rapidly, so we decided to escape while we could.
Where the mudlarks are
Last time we were in London, a few years ago, I signed up for a mudlarking walk on the foreshore of the Thames. It turned out to be one of my all-time favorite adventures, and totally addictive.
In case you’ve never heard of it, mudlarking is the act of digging things out of the Thames mud, when the tide is out (it’s also just a pretty word, so I use it a lot). London has been inhabited for more than two thousand years, so there’s a lot of stuff in the river. The walk I joined was led by an archaeologist, and she gave us a bit of instruction, then turned us loose to dig and scrape and gather. She was available to assess our treasures and tell us what we had. Then at the end, we were allowed to keep what we’d found (there are limits, of course, but no one in my group found an intact human skull, or a box full of gold doubloons).
I didn’t keep anything, obviously, because I can barely get my suitcase closed as is; I’m not giving up underwear in exchange for broken Roman roof tiles, no matter how interesting they are. Instead I made little piles of things and photographed them—a pile of clay pipe stems, a pile of tiles, a pile of broken pottery bits, a pile of bones.
This year, because of the pandemic, the mudlarking tours (they’re only offered in September) have been cancelled. I was a little heartbroken, so to feed my obsession, I read a book about mudlarking. It’s called (duh) Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames.
Every day I walked along the edge of the river, listening to the audio of the book, and marveled at how the author managed to make something as earthbound as mud sound so lyrical. She twines together nature, the river, the history of London, her ancestors, her own life story, and the habits of other mudlarkers, in a poetic tale.
Then, in a stroke of luck, Lee and I popped into a cathedral cafe for lunch one day, and I stumbled across an exhibit that the author of the book had put together in the cathedral—several glass cabinets stuffed full of artifacts she had pulled from the mud. I wound up going back again, to contemplate the sheer wealth of stuff.
The exhibit happens to be installed in a section of the cathedral where the ancient foundations of the building have been preserved. Underneath the Norman priory, the medieval coffin, the Renaissance pottery kiln, and the Victorian waterworks, lies the remains of a Roman road, from the 1st century AD.
You can take in the grand expanse of history in one well-labeled timeline, or you can move just ten feet and study the sole of a child’s shoe, a worn-out thimble, or a broken belt buckle. There’s something compelling about this juxtaposition: the vastness of human existence, against the pathos of the individual, the everyday. The personal becomes intimate.
History is, after all, about people. It always has been.
From my writer’s notebook:
Really, this whole essay has been about things that inspire me, but for those of you who enjoy a little inside baseball—I took a lot of photos of the exhibit. I’m a terrible photographer, so I won’t be showing them off, but that’s not why I took them to begin with. I’ll go back and study them (I already have), looking for inspiration.
I once saw an interview with one of my favorite authors (A.S. Byatt) in which she talked about watching Antiques Roadshow to get ideas about objects that could be significant in her books. Nowadays, that’s how I approach museums (nowadays being pre-Covid, of course)—on the lookout for ideas.
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