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Oral History Transcript
Interviewee: Nick Stevens
Date: 25 July 2019
Interviewer: Eva Tausig
Q: This is an oral history interview with Nick Stevens by Eva Tausig on the 25th of July, 2019. The interview is taking place at Nick's house as part of Thames Festival Trust's Foragers of the Foreshore Heritage Project. So please can you state your full name?
A: Yes, it’s Nick Stevens.
Q: And your date of birth.
A: 25th 11 ’72.
Q: And where were you born?
A: Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: In Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire.
Q: And can you tell me about what kind of subjects you were interested in at school?
A: Art, music, bit of sports, and then not being at school I think was the other subjects I was interested in [laughs].
Q: Excellent. So when you’re in your home, are you near the Thames here, [both talking at once].
A: Pretty close. I could do it in probably 15 minutes on my bike, ten minutes in a car, something like that, yeah.
Q: What brought you to London?
A: That's a good question. It was to pursue a career in photography.
Q: What does a typical week look like for you?
A: Very, very hectic and not enough time on the River Thames, but yeah, that's another conversation to be had.
Q: So how long have you been mudlarking?
A: I've been mudlarking for 12 years now.
Q: And can you tell us about your first experiences of mudlarking?
A: My first experience of actually being on the mud was before I knew about mudlarking, and I had gone down to the foreshore because I thought it was somewhere where things could be found, but I had absolutely no idea and was intrigued enough just to go and have a look; and it confirmed to me that, yes, it looked like it was a place where interesting things could be found. That spurned me on to dig deeper, excuse the pun, in order to try and find information about if things have been found in the River Thames and did people do it? Was there a club? Was there any anything that I could join? Was there somebody that I could go talk to about it? That was it, yeah.
Q: So did you find anything on that first time?
A: I wasn't specifically looking, you know, trying to find something, per se. It was more that I knew that I could, if that makes sense. Just by going down, I knew that it was somewhere where things could be found, if that makes sense.
Q: So then how did that research take you? Did you find a group or did you find out more about mudlarking?
A: It took a couple of attempts, about maybe between six months and a year apart of trying to find an organisation that I could approach. So originally in my research online, I found reference to the Society of Thames Mudlarks, but it didn't give me any information on what they'd found. It didn't give any information on where they met, who to contact. Nothing. It was an article that, I can’t remember, maybe it talked about archaeology or it talked about maybe archaeology in London, and there was a reference to the Thames Mudlarks as having helped out. Maybe it was something from a museum article or something. There was some tie in with this society of mudlarks. That kind of intrigued me enough to have a hunch that there was something going on, but it didn't really give me much, so I kind of put that on the backburner, and whenever it was, about between six months and a year later, I tried again and the thought had popped back into my head and was like, okay, I’m going have another look online. That's when I found Steve Brooker's original Thames and Field website, that was from memory, luminous green and luminous yellow, the page colours. Yeah, it was crazy, but oh my god. There was the most amazing pictures of things that this club found and club members getting muddy, and I just thought, wow, it's got me written all over it, that has, and there was a contact number.
Q: Amazing. So then you called up Steve.
A: So then I called up Steve. He was really friendly. He said, yeah, the next club meeting is whenever it was, just come down, matey, and I thought, okay. That sounds pretty good. So, yeah, I went down whenever the next club meeting was and, yeah, a bit nervous. Obviously I didn't know anybody. I've never done it before--, I’d not even--, I hadn't even gone mudlarking at that point, but I knew it was something that I was interested in. And, yeah, most people were pretty friendly and, you know, you start a few conversations and, yeah, it probably took me a couple of club meets before I then buddied up with somebody, which just tends to be how it is when you start up. You kind of do want to go with somebody else because there's a lot to learn. There's a lot of dangers. Yeah, I knew straight off it would be stupid for me just to go down on my own because I wouldn't know where to go. I wouldn't know how it worked. You know, and you’re meeting people for the first time, no one’s just going to give you the manual straight away. It takes a while for that, for people to trust you enough to give you the information that you need, blah, blah, blah. So it made sense to buddy up with another newbie and that together we would work it out, you know, strength in numbers, and that was it. So we just took it very, very carefully, just visited a few different locations and, yeah. I mean, straight away you're finding things and that's it. So then the next club meet you go with your bag of finds. The fact that you've been out to all the old members, ah you're still doing this. It's great, which is a slightly increased level of acceptance, if that makes sense. You've pursued this a bit more, because you've got a lot of people that maybe come to a couple of meets and then you never see them again. But, you know, in that persistence, people learn to trust you a bit more and then they help you with identification and maybe point you in the direction of other places or mention, we're going out, you might want to come and join us and that kind of thing. Ever so slowly it builds up. You build up friends and, you know, a little network and that's it.
Q: So without giving away too many of your secrets, when you say there's a lot to learn and there's a lot of dangers, what kinds of things are those?
A: I mean, just from a safety point of view of going down onto the foreshore of the River Thames, you know, you see the water when it's in, it's a very fast moving river. It's very unforgiving. Obviously, it's very muddy. You need to learn how to read the mud because you could get stuck, you know. I’ve seen it. I’ve come close many times myself, when you're just--, what looks like solid foreshore isn't. It's like quicksand and you just drop to your waist. So, hence why being on your own when you don't know where you're going, could be very dangerous, really.
Q: So what's the hairiest situation you've got yourself into or that you’ve seen?
A: Yeah, again, It was thankfully again with a friend. So yeah, I think it was Steve, actually, I stepped in something around the back of a boatyard somewhere. I don't know what it was, a trough or something. I seem to remember thinking that looks all right, and up to my waist, but he was right next to me, he quickly pulled me out, but I recently pulled a friend out in Wapping of all places. You know, it’s a place where it’s very popular. I know of a couple of little bits down there where you don’t cut across the little inlet. You’ve got to go round it. And he decided to cut across it and that was it. He was completely stuck up to his waist and I had to pull him out, and he nearly pulled me in with it.
Q: Did he lose his shoes?
A: He was absolutely caked. I can’t remember if he lost his wellies or not, I can’t remember. No, I think he had walking boots on, so they weren't coming off, but yeah, if I hadn't been there, I don’t know what he would have done, really.
Q: So going back to that original, you seeking out mudlarking tribe, was it more the experience of mudlarking that the drew you to that or the history of these amazing objects?
A: All of it, really. I’d always, had an interest. Bottle digging, fossil hunting as a kid from a very young age. Where I grew up I had--, one of my best mates still to this day, he was likeminded, so we were--, every excuse, we were out fossil hunting, bottle digging, you know. So I knew the thrill of the chase. I had that in me, you know, and living in London, I still have that urge, but it's not like--, there's no woods. I can’t go metal detecting in the local park. You know, you have to do it right. So, you know, for me it was can I quench that thirst and live in the centre of London? And yes, found out that it was possible. So in terms of the pursuit of mudlarking, but also because I've always had that in me, wanting to find something and then wanting to do the research if I don't already know what it is. If I don't know what it is, that's an added bonus, because I know I've got that extra search when I get home to try and work out what it is, which is an added buzz even more so sometimes, especially if it's something that is amazing., you know, you found out its amazing, you know?
Q: So you’ve sort of answered this a bit, but what is it that keeps you going back down to the Thames?
A: The thrill of just finding stuff. I think that's what it is. Unearthing history, I'd say, yeah ,and you never know what you can find. Something like fishing, where I'm sure if you're a fisherman, you know, you fish the River Thames, it’s probably one of 20 fish, one of 20 fish that you're ever likely to catch, whereas mudlarking, it’s an infinite list of possibilities. And it could be a mundane button, that's the best you did, or it could be oh my god, a piece of worked Mesolithic flint or it could be, you know, an amazing coin, a rare coin to find, something like that.
Q: So can you describe for us that feeling of actually being down by the Thames and mudlarking? What’s that like?
A: It's very peaceful. It's very cathartic. It's very relaxing. It's exciting. I think that's four words that pretty much sum it up. Yeah.
Q: Do you have a favourite time of day or season that you'd like to mudlark?
A: That's a good question. Low tide, I think is probably it. Doesn’t matter if it's rain, sleet, hail or sun, really. If it's a good low tide, then, you know, the odds are way much more in your favour. The feeling of anticipation is greater, you know. That's not to say that you're not going to find something on the worst tide, of which I have done on countless occasions, it’s just that your odds are greater when the tide is that much lower.
Q: Why is that?
A: Because there's just more foreshore available and foreshore has been uncovered that doesn't get uncovered as much, if that makes sense.
Q: So when you're preparing to go mudlarking, reading the tide tables is a big part of that.
A: Absolutely, absolutely. And as tight as I am for time, then I will try and push everything out of the way just so I can go out on those low tides, rather than, oh there's a low tide now, but it's rubbish, but hey, I'll go out on it anyway. I might just think, do you know what, I’m going to save up. I'll save up my going out time, give it another couple of weeks ‘cause they're much lower in a couple of weeks.
Q: So it's not, so I've got free evening or free morning, I'm going to go down, it’s more…
A: Sometimes, but unfortunately now with--, I just have so much on my plate that I have to prioritise a lot more. Maybe, years ago I was, you know, slightly freer--, I would have done. I would have gone out on any tide, really, but now I have to be a lot more selective [laughs].
Q: So can you tell us about a most memorable experience of mudlarking?
A: Yeah, lots of I guess in terms, if I think of all of my favourite finds or some of my most exciting finds, yeah, that time, that moment of finding it, I can always remember that moment when I look at a particular find and remember finding that find and remember, you know, almost the kind of day it was or, you know, where I was. ‘Cause often you like to think that you could go back to the place that you found an amazing artefact because you're going to find another one. You often hold that thought in your head. That rarely ever happens, but often you just--, well, I do anyway--, If I think back to those great finds, I always think I must go back there because I'm going to find another one. Well,, you know, you're not, but it just has that kind of almost little connection somehow. So I don’t know, I think probably the skull was the most memorable, I suppose. Yeah, and I was actually on the phone to my wife. She was asking what it was likely to be back and I was like, oh, my God, I've just come across something that's I think really serious and it’s a skull. She's like, oh dear, well you go deal with that then. Let me know.
Q: Won’t be back for dinner.
A: Might not be back for dinner. Yeah, and then obviously, the cogs started clicking in my head. Oh, my God, what am I going to do? What I do in this situation? So, yeah, I rang a few people and then yeah, of course I need to phone the police straight away and then, yeah, eventually, I think it was about 45 minutes later they arrived and climbed down the river wall. They didn't have wellies on. They just had shoes on. “Okay Sonny, what are these bones you found?” I showed them a picture that I’d taken on my phone and they all looked at each other and then looked at me and sort of said, okay, that is quite serious. Where is it? And ‘cause the tide had come in, it was gone, but I’d marked it with--, at the time and the minute I found it, I looked for a marker, found a big, long metal spike that I just hammered into the ground just above where the skull was, because I knew the tide--, the tide was incoming. You know, I had minutes until it was it was going to be covered over and I knew they were’nt going to get down in time, so.
Q: So why did you not move it and take it with you? You’re not allowed?
A: Because it's human remains, yeah. I just don't know what the jurisdiction is on that, but I think I realised, yeah, that I'm not going to tamper with that. So when they came down, yeah, we all looked at each other's footwear they sort of noticed that I had wellies on and they just had sort of normal shoes. So I said oh okay, I don't mind, so I waded out and almost like picking up a bowling ball and just, you know, literally picked it up and walked back over to this forensics guy, who had a bag ready for me to put the skull into. At that point, I realised that the jaw had come away. So I said, oh look , I can see that the jaw is not with the skull. Don’t worry about that, don't need that, and I'm thinking, yeah, I think it should stay together. Just wait there, I'm going go back out. So I went back out and had a feel around and, yeah, felt something jaw-like, and there it was. So I’m like, okay guys, you need to take this with it, and that was it. They did ask me why you here, of all places, because it's quite a treacherous ladder to get down to the foreshore. There's nothing else there. It's just mud for quite a way. Why are you down here? So I explain what I was doing, showed them my bucket of stuff I’d found. Oh, that’s pretty interesting. See you later then. That was that. Off they went.
Q: So we're going to come back to the skull, although maybe we should talk about the skull now because I’m very intrigued by the skill. So what happened? Was that it?
A: So then they left. Did I get a number from them? I don’t remember, or maybe they told me the station I had to contact, so a couple days later I phoned up the station, managed to get hold of somebody who was kind of dealing with it and they said, okay, we need to establish how old the skull is because there are some criminal investigations still open, some murder cases, for instance, and we need to determine if that is part of that. So eventually it came back that it was older than 80 years, which I think is the cut-off point, something like that. Anything younger might still be relevant, anything after that, they just--, this would be it, wouldn't be a case to prove or disprove. So they said, yes, it's older than 80 years old, so we're just going to re-inter it, which I didn't know at the time what that meant, but actually means to rebury. I rang the guy back up after I digested his information, and said that seems a real shame that you're going to, you know, rebury or just, you know, dispose of it, to me, because there would be lots more of a story that could be told. Would it be okay if I came to collect it? And the coming answer was that’s a really inappropriate question, no, you absolutely can't. So I just reiterated that it was a real shame and, you know, maybe there's something--, if I was to go to find an archaeological body, would they be able to step in? Yeah, that might be possible. So I left it at that. I then phoned around a few people, managed to get hold of Natalie from Thames Discovery and she said I will take over this. So she got the authority and went in and collected the skull. Around that time as well, the police did say that they were going to go back and have a search of the area to see if there was any more remains, which they said they had done and didn't find anything. So as far as I was concerned, it was just a skull and Natalie thankfully collected it. They did a carbon 14 test on part of the skull, and that came back with a date range of around 1730, which is mind-blowing to think, my god, that's really old. That is really old. Wow. Natalie said I think it's worth us going back to have another look because there might be some more remains there; to which I said I've already checked that out. The police did go back and they did have a good look and there's nothing else left. To which Natalie said, well they might not have had a thorough search. I would like to go back and I would like to decide if there's anything there. I was like okay, fine. So we have to wait for certain--, because it was quite a low tide when I found the skull. So we had to wait for a similar low tide because we would just never have seen that particular area. So it was maybe a couple of weeks later, that particular low tide came up. So we went down and managed to find the area again, because the stake had gone so it wasn't that obvious, but actually, looking at the original pictures, I was able to find a couple of stones and bricks, really bizarrely that were the same in the picture that were still sitting on the foreshore. So I’m like this is the spot, and actually, I remember speaking to a guy who was standing up on the river wall and I remember this is exactly the spot. So we started looking and it wasn't long before Natalie said, “I think I found a human bone,” which I had to say, well, I'm going to take your word for it, because, you know, there are bones literally all over the foreshore and unless, you know, it's impossible to know, but she was convinced it was. So we had another look around and then she said, “I think we should we should have a dig and just see what happens,” you know. So we started to dig, and unbelievably, we found the top a--, it was a rib bone, then another rib bone, then another bone, and then eventually the top of the pelvis. So we realised it's all still here, so we backfilled the hole and then came back the following day with her entire kind of organisation, her boss, there was site surveyors, there were osteologists, specialists, all this is. There was a whole group of a, guy making a film. He came down and we documented the entire excavation and excavated, I think, about 98 percent of it, which was a her, a 12-year-old girl who lived around 1730. She was buried, definitely buried because you could see the grave cut, so you could see the difference in the soil colouring. She was buried with some textiles. We found some rotten fabric and some buttons. She was laid head to foreshore, feet out to the river. So it seems we got an age or the time that she was she lived, 1730. I did a bit of research, found an amazing map created by a French guy called Roque, Roque’s Map, and he did an amazing detailed map of London, but most of the versions that you find are just central London. I knew that he had done--, incorporating Isle of Dogs and Greenwich, which took quite a while to find that version. I eventually did, which clearly showed the Isle of Dogs with nothing on it apart from a gibbet, right near where I found the skeleton, which is which was a metal cage that pirates, executed pirates, would be hung in to display for ships and boats coming in as a message to say, don't mess with us. You know, don't break the law in London ‘cause this is this will be your fate. So it was an iron cage with a dead body inside, quite a common thing many years ago. So this is on Roque’s map. There’s a ferry crossing mentioned in his Pepys’ diary. There's mills along the river wall, where we now get the term Millwall for those mills grinding corn. I found mention of cattle being grazed out on what was called Stuben Heath Marsh, that was what the Isle of Dogs was once called, cattle grazing before being taken to Smithfield Market for slaughter. I've also found many fish traps down on the riverbed. So she was either, in my opinion, the daughter of a mill owner, a fisherman or a cattle grazer, who was unable to pay for a burial in the churchyard, which would have been what most people would have wished for somebody who died, is to bury them in consecrated ground. That was really important, so the fact that she wasn't would suggest that she was from a very humble background. They couldn’t have afforded maybe to do that. Yeah, that's it, really. Very sad, but somebody loved her enough to bury her. She wasn't--, she wasn't washed up. She was definitely buried. So somebody took the time to go out and dig a burial, you know, and bury her. The only other thing that we could do would be an isotope test, which would which read the calcium deposits in her teeth, which would tell you where she grew up, which would tell pretty much if she grew up in London or maybe she might have come from somewhere else. It's quite a good test and quite good at saying where somebody grew up, from the calcium in the water that they drunk, it gets deposited on the teeth
Q: The things that she is buried with, was that quite common to bury someone with those things?
A: It would have been maybe a blanket or some clothing or something like that, wrapped in something. Yeah. I don't know if that was a common thing, but would you bury somebody without any clothes on or would you have them dressed? I imagine you dressed them, yeah, so. If nothing else a blanket or something, I don't know. But she suffered from rickets, which is quite common. So that's possibly maybe what she died from. Just malnourishment. You could see arrested development on her enamel on her teeth, which is a main indicator of malnourishment, and her bones in her legs were bowed. So she would have clearly displayed signs of severe malnourishment. So, again, it sort of begs the question that she was from a humble background, you know, impoverished, maybe just not enough access to clean water and food, fresh food, which was quite common at that time, really. So, yeah, quite a sad story, but quite a find [laughs].
Q: Quite a find.
A: As you can imagine, I actually did something on the on the Great Eastern a few years later and managed to find his amazing picture, black and white picture, of the Great Eastern being constructed, taken from the foreshore. I reckon the photographer was probably stood on top of where she was located, where the picture was taken. I'm pretty convinced of it. Yeah yeah.
Q: A lot of mudlarking, it's sort of like reaching out across history.
A: It's a hand through time. Yeah.
Q: I can tell you really feel the intimate connection as well.
A: I do, and actually, when I found it my daughter just been born, so it was very like, oh, my God, what does this mean, you know? Take it where you want, but yeah, quite a mad day, that was.
Q: So going back to sort of the process of mudlarking, when you're preparing to go mudlarking, how do you prepare? What do you take with you?
A: My find pouch, my trowel. That's mostly what I take with me, and my phone, that's it. If I'm going to be going metal detecting, which I do quite rarely, not that much, and then obviously my detector and spare batteries, headphones. Depending on the weather, obviously, in the winter, it's really cold,.so I'm going to dress loads of layers and gloves, stuff like that, hat, scarf. If I think it's going to rain, then I'll have spare rain jacket, but as long as I've got my find pouch and my trowel and my wellies, I'm good to go, really. I don't really need much else. Yeah.
Q: Do you go alone, with people?
A: I now go alone probably 50 per cent of the time and then 50 per cent of the time with others.
Q: Is there a particular kind object that you like collecting that your eye sees?
A: That's a good question. I'm quite good at finding fossils. I have a massive fossil collection and I don't see that many fossils from other mudlarks, so I don't know, for some reason I just tend to gravitate towards those. I put it down to the fact that I’ve always been into fossils from a really young age so my rolodex of fossils in my brain is huge, so maybe I can spot things that maybe others miss perhaps in that respect. I don't know, what do I like to find? That’s a good question. I don't think there is really. All of it, yeah.
Q: It is interesting, though, isn't it, that when you talk to people their eye seems to sort of find a certain thing.
A: That is very true, yeah. Often, like buses, you'll find one, then you find another one of the same thing. That happens more often than not, where you go, yeah, there has to be something in that other than just coincidence [laughs].
Q: Do you have a particular method? Are you down on your knees, are you…?
A: I will do that when I know I'm in a good spot. I tend to spend quite a lot of time just walking around analysing and gauging and scoping and having a little test area, and I'm kind of looking out for a good vein, almost, of productivity, if that makes sense. ‘Cause the tide or rather the foreshore changes on a daily basis, or twice daily because there's two tides a day. You know, you could go down one day and go to the same spot the following day and it will actually look a lot different. So maybe for the good, maybe for the worst. So, you know, sometimes a good area the previous day is even better the next day or could be a complete wash out. So yeah, the ability to kind of be able to read the foreshore and know, okay, this is good or just to know, do you know what? I'm not going to waste my time. Let's keep going. Yeah, that comes with experience.
Q: So the process of mudlarking for you, I guess, doesn't really stop once you’ve found the object. It's really important for you to research…
A: If I don't know what it is, exactly. So the more you do it, you know, obviously the chances are that you're going to know, okay, that's [a bat 0:28:29] because I've seen that before. Great, I can file that away. The chances of finding something that is maybe not quite so obvious becomes slightly less as time goes on.
Q: What are those common things that you come across a lot?
A: In terms of common finds, things like, you know, buttons of which there are loads of different varieties, but after a while you can tend--, you can tend to kind of categorise them into fly buttons, military buttons, utilitarian buttons, if it's going to be medieval or Victorian or Georgian. You know, you can and do spot straight away, okay, that's a blah, blah button. You can pigeonhole it that way. Coins, again after a while you just know what they are, ‘cause you know, there's not an infinite amount of coin varieties and the chances of finding something really unique is very slim. So on the whole you're going to end up finding, you know, coins that others have found similar ones of, and once you've been doing this for so long time, yeah, I can recognise that’s a [inaudible 0:29:37] or that's a Victorian sixpence or that's a Georgian half penny. Which is great when something turns up and you don't know what it is, you know, and it does happen. It does happen.
Q: So what happens then?
A: That's the excitement. Well, that's the excitement. You’re there, you know, especially if you're with other people and it's great if everybody everybody's flummoxed, you know. You might find something that you don't know what it is, but there's a good chance that if you're with a bunch of other people, someone's going to know what that is. So it's great when everyone's scratching their head and, you know, people have got ideas, but really no one knows. Now, they might take that idea and they might email you when you get home. I thought it was that, and yes, it’s that. Ah great, cheers. Or it might be down to you to be the person to crack the case. It’s good [laughs].
Q: Do you use internet mostly, to do that?
A: Yeah, so we have--, we’ve got a club WhatsApp, which is where most of the identification goes on, I suppose. Then our monthly club meets, which to me, that’s my favourite part where--, you know, all this social media’s great, but there's nothing better than just sitting in a pub with a bunch of mates and just have those boxes out and we will just go through it all. And, you know, you’ve got it there, you can see it in your hand and it’s not just a grainy picture. And you get to hear the person’s backstory of how they found it and, yeah, so sharing those stories is brilliant, absolutely brilliant, that’s the highlight of my month, is club meets.
Q: And you like to share your finds with the wider public as well, so can you talk to us a bit about how you do that?
A: Well, obviously, our end game is to have a location where we can tell the story of London through finds made by mudlarks. You know, there are various items in various museums in London that have been found by the mudlarks, but it doesn’t have its own context. It’s part of the broader picture of finds made and there might be a by-line, it was found by a mudlark, but it’s not telling the story of the River Thames, because why is it in the River Thames? We know we can do an archaeological survey of a site on land and know those things were maybe deposited or dropped by people living in that particular building, but in the River Thames? There's that slight disconnect because you know it’s come from somewhere else and ended up in the river, if that makes sense. Obviously, a lot of it might be just from general rubbish that’s ended up just being thrown away with everything else, but that is probably more than likely to be the reason, but the question avenue for us, was it thrown away? Was it votive? Was there a murder? You know, it’s just so much bigger, so much more possible, if that makes sense. Yeah, it just conjures up those thoughts so much more, I imagine, than doing an archaeological site on land. I think that’s one of the joys of the mudlarking. There was the guy who recently found--, about a year or so ago, the Victoria Cross, you know, which we now know wasn’t just dropped in. That was somebody who, I believe, had some issues with how he earned that Victoria Cross, and it was a decision to get rid of it. You know, that in itself has its whole back story, doesn’t it?
Q: Can you say just quickly what the Victoria Cross is?
A: Yeah, it’s an award, a medal awarded to gallantry, valour, the First World War? I’m not sure. My background on that is not 100 per cent, but yeah. Obviously, it was a medal awarded to somebody for doing good deeds, but that’s war. That was killing people. That was, you know, whatever it was, which on reflection might be hard for somebody to actually internally deal with, you know, so that’s potentially what happened in that case, what that person decided, actually I don’t want this. This has brought me more harm than good. I don’t want it. I need to be free of this experience, so that was how that person dealt with that. Again, it’s got that back story to it, which if it was just dropped on land, well the person dropped it and that’s that.
Q: Before we go on to talking about some more of your finds, has the river changed over the years?
A: Yes, massively.
Q: In what ways?
A: So, erosion. Things like the Tower of London, you know, which when I started was probably the best place to go mudlarking. We used to do a weekend every year, which was an open archaeological weekend when the public could come down. It was open Saturday and Sunday. Our club, Thames and Field, we used to display a table and it was great. Then they decided because of the erosion, quite rightly actually because of the heavy, heavy erosion down there, they were going to need to do something and the answer to that was to completely shore up the foreshore and dump thousands of tons worth of rubble and pebbles and stuff on top of what was the best area for mudlarking. So that’s all gone, unfortunately, that area. The same has happened in Greenwich. Limehouse has been affected by the super sewer, as has, I think further west near Chelsea, it’s been the same on the south side as well. So certain areas of the foreshore that are no longer accessible. It’s great when you can go on a nice long walk, so you can come down one set of stairs and walk, you know, sometimes a mile or so along the foreshore and then come up at another set of stairs. A lot of those walks are now, you can’t do them because these super sewer constructions are out into the water, so you can’t go past them. So that’s a real shame. It’s just progress, isn’t it? It’s life, I suppose. What we hope is that because the river’s a moving river, that all that energy has to go somewhere, so a lot of the erosion is because of that moving force of water, so if there's an obstruction put in the way, that force still has to go somewhere. So, what it will do is start to erode out other areas that have never seen the light of day. They might be heavily muddy areas that no one’s ever mudlarked because it’s just gloopy mud, might now start to clean off, if that makes sense? That energy, it has to go somewhere. It has to go somewhere. I’ve not seen it yet, but that’s the theory, that hopefully other areas will become accessible or become mudlarkable, potentially.
Q: And has your relationship to mudlarking changed over the years?
A: I suppose--, that’s a good question. I suppose I’ve eased off the amount of times that I go out. I think when I started, you know, you’re dead keen to go out every opportunity. Just my life right now, I have so much on my plate that I just literally don’t have the time to devote as much time as I might like. So in that respect, I suppose, yeah I do less mudlarking, but then again on reflection, I probably do more articles and working on other projects, which are not me actually going out mudlarking, but I’m working towards obviously the museum concepts, writing lots of magazine articles, things like that. So yeah, the involvement has shifted slightly, I suppose, but it still occupies quite a lot of my life.
Q: Excellent. So, we’ve spoken about your skull.
Q: Let’s speak about a few other finds. So, onion bottle?
A: Onion bottle. So, an onion bottle is kind of like the shape of an onion, so it has a bottle shaped neck but then becomes very, very wide and bulbous towards the bottom. The reason for that is because it was a way of having liquid on board a ship, the bottle won’t tip over, if you can imagine that?
A: Because it’s bottom-heavy, it stays where it is on board a ship which it tossing and turning. They’re very, very rare to find whole. You can often find bits of black glass, which are from those types of bottles. You can spot the necks every now and again. Basically because they have the bulbous bottom to them, the fragments that I’ve found in the past, are the bulbous bottoms sticking out of the mud and you have that heart-stopping moment when, is this a whole onion bottle? You take the time to start to dig around this bulbous piece of glass and, you know, 99 times out of 100, it’s just a broken bit of it, but it could have been whole and there was that heart-stopping moment. On this particular day, was one of those heart-stopping moments, and for me, it kept going and it kept going, and unbelievably it was a complete onion bottle that I pulled out of the mud.
Q: So, digging around and digging around.
A: It just kept going. Like I said, 99 times out of 100, when I’ve done it before, it’s just a broken--, it might be a large broken piece, but it’s a broken piece. But on that particular day.
Q: Going back to that image of reaching your hand across history, who do you imagine was the last person who used that object?
A: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I really don’t know, can’t answer that. I don’t know. It’s impossible to tell, to be honest. There was nothing really in that area which would suggest anything other than what could be the same could be said about any other place; casual drop off a ship, you know, of that particular age. I think it’s about 1650, I think, that bottle. So, yeah, possibly of a ship, maybe? I mean, who knows? I don’t know. I can’t tell you. I’d like to think ship. I’m going to say ship.
Q: A ship mate.
Q: Great. So moving on to the Mesolithic hand axe.
A: The Mesolithic hand axe. So that, I guess before I found that, that was probably the item that was at the top of my want list at that time. I’d never found a piece of worked flint ever. From a small child, getting into fossil hunting, you know, although it’s not a fossil, it was one of those items that wow, yeah, one day I would love to be able to find my own stone hand axe. I’d handled them as a kid, going to different events and stuff like that, but there's nothing better than actually finding one yourself, that Indiana Jones kind of thing. You know, you want to be the one to find it, you know. So, when I saw that item, I knew immediately what it was and it was just oh my God, look at this. Unbelievable and, knowing how old it was, nobody else has touched it since then, and it’s mind blowing to think of the last human being to have that in their hand, the last human being, and you’re the next on in the line, you know, however many thousands of years separate, it’s amazing, really.
Q: We’re talking about many thousands?
A: Yes, well about 11,000, 12,000 years, yeah amazing. So then you try and picture what was London then, let’s say. So, everything that you find, you might – you know, I do it, I just kind of jump back to that time, imagine myself as a Victorian or a Georgian or maybe, wow, very rarely a Roman. If you find a Roman coin, try and imagine that, it’s impossible, but take it even further back, 11,000 years. There's no bridges, no buildings, there’s nothing here. It’s just a nice big wide river, there's a few islands in it, you know, some hills in the background, that’s it. But we’re here because it’s fertile. We’ve got the water, navigation, fishing, feel secure. There's islands that we can build on, you know, perfect location, and I dropped my stone hand axe; or perhaps it was a votive offering. So we like this area, we want it to be great for our future, so I’m going to make this item and I’m going to deposit it in the river and say a prayer and hope that, you know, the gods favour us in our new location.
Q: What was the river actually like that day and what was the day like? Do you remember?
A: Do I remember it? I don’t really remember. I remember that it was a low tide and I also remember finding, right next to it, was a huge flint with a sea urchin, a fossil sea urchin in the flint, which actually the two are tied together in terms of from a spiritual point of view because back in that period, it wouldn’t have been obvious that that was fossil. Nobody would have known the concept of what a fossil was, so what was it? You know, on a sea urchin, it has a star shape, which actually represents the stick man, almost. So it would have had that interpretation, perhaps. There's no connection between the two items that I found together at all, it’s just pure coincidence, but there are plenty of examples of Mesolithic, Neolithic burials where fossil sea urchins have been buried with the dead person because they had a spiritual connection. And when you look at it, it actually looks like a stick man. It’s a crude drawing of a--, well, it could be interpreted as that, for example. So yeah, pure coincidence that the two were found together, but just ironic that there is actually that--, there is a connection between the two spiritually between those two and, like I said, through burials and things like that.
Q: But they’re not dated to the same time?
A: No, no. One’s a fossil, one’s however many, 200 million years old. One’s 11,000 years old. But yeah.
Q: Your megalodon tooth.
A: The megalodon tooth. For me, again, fossil hunter, the six year old fossil hunter that’s in me still, you know, you know that was an incredible find, you know, in a completely obscure location, on top of a barge bed, in an industrial area, nothing to do with fossils, no reason for it to be there. It was on top of a concrete barge bed. So I’m looking around, you know, someone’s playing a trick on me, you know, unbelievable and actually I didn’t even know that it was a native, an indigenous fossil. I thought this is from something that doesn’t belong, never existed in and around England, but it did. I didn’t know that. It was good, great research, to work out what it was and then actually understand that yeah, these guys were swimming around in the tropical coasts, you know, 20 million year ago.
Q: So, can you explain to us a bit more what a megalodon is?
A: Megalodon tooth. It just means big shark, essentially. It was a huge shark, huge. Huge, huge, huge, length of a football pitch and would have eaten whales and dolphins and turtles for breakfast. Huge, huge. It was the beast of the sea. It’s almost like a prehistoric throw back.
Q: Is this megalodon around the same time as dinosaurs, [both talking at once]?
A: No, much later than that.
Q: Much later than that?
A: As in more recent, yes. Much more recent.
Q: Ah okay. I’ve never heard of a megalodon.
A: Have a look. When I found it and was researching it, I found a series of books called Meg. There was a film a couple of years ago called Meg, which was appalling, with Jason Statham, which I was so excited that they were making a film of the first book in this series, and this guy wrote this series of books, and his idea was that, you know the hydrothermal plumes in the Mariana Trench? You know, it’s the deepest part of the ocean, and at the bottom, they found these hydrothermal plumes, so basically kicking out oxygen, and they found sea creatures living at the bottom of the ocean. It’s so deep, you know, so deep. No one ever thought that life could exist that deep, but they’ve sent ROVs down and there are. It’s a whole--, there's a whole load of creatures living down there, so in this book he hypothesises that during the Ice Age, some creatures lived, you know, were able to enter that thermal--, 'cause it’s super-heated water, basically--, entered that zone and survived the Ice Age and have come back to repopulate, okay. This is just the theory in this book, but it’s all based on as much fact as possible. He doesn’t skimp on anything, where you go hang on, you’ve not explained how that’s possible, oh now, he’s put that in. So, from my perspective, it’s great because it could happen. It obviously never did, but it kind of could happen. It just conjures up for me this whole thought process. So to have found this tooth myself, it’s just mind blowing, and to know that they were swimming around the sea in England. Incredible.
Q: Amazing. So, how big is the tooth?
A: It is that kind of size. [demonstrates]
Q: So you’ve got your hands like…
A: It would fit in the palm of your hand, fit nicely in the palm of your hand. It’s quite a small one, so again now I know what they look like, you know, on Instagram, you can see guys that still find these things now and some of them are huge. Mine’s quite worn. If you find a good specimen, the serration on them is--, you could just cut wood with it.
Q: Have they ever managed to find and piece together a whole skeleton of a whole megalodon.
A: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Not--, I suppose they must have done somewhere yes, of course, but I don’t know about in England. I don’t know.
Q: it’s not a mythical creature? It definitely exists.
A: No, it definitely exists. Yeah. Existed.
Q: Wow, giant shark.
Q: So moving on to your last find, your gold mourning ring.
A: Yes, yeah. So, that was a find, and this can happen [laughs]. Again, it’s just coincidence. A friend of mine found--, did he find a mourning ring? I think he might found a mourning ring. He might have found a posy ring, which is from a similar date and it’s gold and it’s what you would give to your girlfriend or sweetheart, that kind of thing, in this certain area. So I thought I’m going to go to that area because--, and in my head, I was going to find one that day, and I did. It was really, really weird. That’s what I found, and I just saw it sticking out of the mud, you know, circle pointing up at me, so I could see there was a gold circle just on the top of the mud, just looking up at me, and I picked it up and actually I couldn’t really decipher the skull to begin with. It wasn’t that obvious to me, and then, yeah, a bit of research and then that amazing eureka moment, because I’d been searching everywhere and I’d thought it was something else. Then when I realised what it was, and then was able to, you know, search using those search terms, and I could see all the other examples, it was hands down, that’s what it was. It was a mourning ring, and it has a skull on the front.
Q: So what exactly is a mourning ring?
A: Would be for somebody to wear in memory of a loved one. So if your partner, your husband, wife passed away, you would get a mourning ring made with their initials, maybe their name, the date they died, maybe how old they were, and it has a skull on it. It would have been inlayed with black, so it would have looked slightly different to what we see now.
Q: So, describe how this one looks, the one that you have.
A: It’s very, very thin, very small. It’s almost--, often old jewellery that we find, just appears to be so small, because the belief is that people were just smaller. It almost seems like a child’s ring, really, but yeah it is what it is. It’s just on a slightly smaller scale, but it is what it is. It almost would be like a man’s wedding ring, almost, a gold wedding ring, that kind of size, but just on a slightly smaller scale. But beautifully carved and the lettering inside, the font they’ve used, amazing.
Q: What does it say?
A: From memory, it says--, it has the date, 1701, it has the date the person died, something of October, TW, which I believe is the initials of the person who died. It has some Latin. The Latin for ‘lived for’, the Latin for died, the date they died, and it has a maker’s mark stamped on the inside, which unfortunately we can’t trace to who the maker is, which is a bit of a shame. That would have been quite nice, but…
Q: And the skull.
A: And the skull on the outside. The skull is on the outside. So the engraving is on the inside and the skull is on the outside, but it’s so crude that it’s not that obvious. You have to get it in a certain angle and then you realise, ah okay, it’s a skull.
Q: The dates?
A: The date is 1701, so that would have been when it was produced, or maybe--, sorry, that’s when the person died.
Q: So who do you imagine was wearing that?
A: I imagine it was worn by a wealthy lady, in memory of her husband because you would have needed a few quid to have had something like that commissioned. The gold scrap value itself would have been more than most people would have dreamt of earning in a lifetime, so yeah, you would have been reasonable wealthy to have afforded to have had that made. Then bizarre. Why does it end up in the river? You know? Something like that, you would pass that down, wouldn’t you, to your next of kin, you would have thought, wouldn’t you? I don’t know. Would that be kept in the family or would you think no, I need to throw that away.
Q: Yeah, maybe you’re done remembering that person for some reason.
A: Possibly, I suppose. Yeah, I suppose you could have had it made and then a piece of information came to light, that he was a dirty dog and--, yeah. That’s possible, that’s possible.
Q: it’s interesting. It seems quite punk these days to wear a skull ring. [Both talking at once] sort of a wealthy lady from the 17th century…
A: It was very in vogue. Very in vogue. Yeah, it’s just a slightly bizarre, quirky thing, but very in vogue at the time.
A: Yeah, isn’t it?
Q: Cool. Is there anything else you want to share with us about mudlarking?
A: Erm, just keep your eye on the Thames Museum, I think. We really, really hope that there's something that will one day materialise. We have just so much information that we want to put on display for the public to enjoy, so many finds. Every mudlarker has these incredible displays just sitting at home, in their wardrobes, under their beds, wherever, you know, and it’s just a shame that, you know, we don’t get that much of an opportunity to show it. Obviously, the Totally Thames experience is going to be great, that all these things are going to be able to be shown. We really hope to be able to one day have a space where all this stuff can be on permanent display, tell all our stories and, yeah, it will be great, it really will be, yes.
A: Thank you.
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