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7 Unexpected Things You Might Find in the Thames

Wed 14th Sep 2016

Our partner Thames21 reconnects communities back to healthy rivers through River clean-ups.

Kirsten Downer, Communications Officer shares seven unexpected things you might find on the Thames foreshore ahead of this weekend's range of archaeological events to get you on the foreshore to start your own exploration...

People have always thrown their waste in the Thames, and on our clean-ups you find rubbish that cuts across time. In this job you will always get surprises, and that’s one of the reasons that we love our work. Sometimes we get to keep them; other times they get handed over to archaeologists, or even the police.


1. Weapons

The oldest weapon we’ve found was at Chelsea in 2010. According to my colleague Ben, it was just sitting on top of the gravel foreshore when he noticed it. He says: ‘Someone told me it looked like a piece of an old gate and starting hitting it against the concrete wall to remove some rust’. Thankfully Ben rescued the item and sent a photo to the Museum of London, who identified it as an Anglo-Saxon spearhead from the 9th century – identifiable from the pagan period by its split socket.


2. Teeth

Teeth last a long time, and tell you much about their owners’ lives. The deep root and ground-down ridges tell us this belonged to an animal which grinds its food. It’s most likely from a cow kept in one of London’s many slaughterhouses – I have no idea how old it is.


3. Message in a bottle

This message bottle came with a yellow rubber duck; duck races are still popular on the river. But not all message bottles are celebratory: ‘I’ve found a few over the years that are very bleak', says Chris, 'People have powered all their pain into a message, and on some level are wanting the river to take their pain away.’


4. Spiritual offerings

Many finds point to an unbroken spiritual connection with the river. Modern and ancient Londoners relate to the Thames as a place for their hopes and dreams, as well as to commemorate the dead. It leaves you with a quandary, however; should you take these items out of the river, or leave them there?

We’re unsure which deity this figure represents, if at all, but it seems likely that she was placed in the river for a spiritual purpose. Originally she had a metal spiral necklace.

This copper sheet contains Sanskrit writing, and seems to be some kind of prayer slate, which would probably have been placed in the river along with funeral ashes.


5. Whistling Lollipops and weird plastic

At a certain point on a Thames River Watch litter survey we found a stash of plastic tubes with a small hole, which intrigued us. We finally realised that they were from Whistling Pops, a popular lollypop launched in 1979, as the lolly which could whistle.

We’re working to raise awareness of the worrying amount of plastic in the river. Identifying the plastic helps us work out where it comes from – we’re still wondering which objects these other plastic items were once part of. Get in touch if you know.


6. 400 year-old clay pipes

Clay pipes are common finds on the river, but some are older than you might think. Ones with small bowls are older, as tobacco was expensive. Complete clay pipe stems are a rarer find – pipes were rented out and got increasingly shorter with use. People snapped bits off as the stem got blocked with tar. Holding the stem between your fingers is a strange experience, knowing that someone else’s fingers held it, hundreds of years ago.


7. A sense of calmness

Magic happens when you step off the pavement and onto the foreshore. You literally get a new perspective, (as well as notice more nature-based sounds and smells) and emotionally, you do too. It can get addictive. One of our volunteers says that she loves being by the river so much that she runs her social calendar by the tide timetables. ‘I love the opportunity to be by the river as much as I can,’ she says. ‘It’s like stepping outside time.’