Mudlarking, I love that term! But what is a “mudlark”? According to the Oxford Languages website, it’s “a person who scavenges in river mud for objects of value” That sounds like fun!
Mudlarking is the act of searching for historical artifacts in the mud or sand along the banks of rivers, estuaries, and shorelines. The practice has gained popularity in recent years, with many people discovering the thrill of uncovering lost treasures from the past. In this article, we will take a closer look at mudlarking, its history, locations, tools, safety tips, and more.
The Origins of the Term “Mudlarking”
The term mudlark once referred to the United Kingdom’s poor who hunted in river mud for items to sell. Nowadays it’s more about scouring the low tide river bottom looking for artifacts from the past. The hobby has grown recently due to social media and you can even sign up for mudlarking tour groups and mudlarking experiences.
A brief history of mudlarking
Mudlarking has been around for centuries, with the first recorded mention of it dating back to the 18th century in London. Back then, mudlarks were mostly impoverished children who scavenged for anything of value in the mud along the River Thames. Over time, the practice evolved and became more organized, with adults joining in the hunt for historical artifacts. Today, mudlarking is a hobby enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds, with the River Thames still being a popular location for the activity.
I want to bring mudlarking to light here because it’s really quite popular and meshes well with the detectorist world. The interest in history and the anticipation of the find are clear overlaps. Metal detecting is done over ground, sand, and rocks, even underwater. Mudlarking is more often associated with mucky river bottoms. However, mudlarks do bring metal detectors from time to time. Either way, all of these environments produce treasure (and trash) if you know how to hunt for them.
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How popular is mudlarking?
Search trends are a good indicator of where mudlarking is popular. Using the “ing” suffix I see the following areas of interest:
You can see that the United Kingdom shows the most search interest by the darkest color. The Thames River is one of the most popular spots for mudlarking because of the large population living near the river over long periods of history. The Thames has been used for travel, food, and a trash dump as well.
By the way: If you only look for the term “mudlark” you see a lot of interest in Australia, but that’s because of the magpie-lark which is also referred to as the peewee, peewit, or mudlark.
How to go Mudlarking
Permits: According to the New York Times “The Port of London Authority, which owns the Thames waterway along with the Crown Estate (i.e. Queen Elizabeth II), began to regulate exploration along the shore in 2016, requiring anyone searching the banks to have a foreshore permit. These permits … allow people to explore the terrain, and scrape or dig into the mud up to a depth of 7.5 centimeters, around three inches. Mudlarks are advised to report objects that could be of archaeological interest to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, run by the British Museum.”
As you can tell by the name, this pursuit involves mud, so you’ll need to figure out when low tide occurs where you’re planning to search.
Tips and Techniques
First, be aware of “da Rules” – for example, Britain legally obligates people who dig up “treasure” (as in single finds of gold and silver over 300 years old, or “hoards” of coins and prehistoric metalwork) to report that to their government. It’s taken quite seriously and could easily involve jail time if you don’t comply. Read more about these “antiquities” here.
Mudlarking Tools and Equipment
Tp be successful at mudlarking, you will need a few essential tools and pieces of equipment. One of the most important items is a good pair of boots that can withstand the wet and muddy conditions. You will also need a digging tool, such as a trowel or small shovel, to help you sift through the mud and sand. Other useful tools include a metal detector, a sieve, and a magnifying glass to help you identify any artifacts you find. Other important items:
- Waders to keep your pants dry
- Backpack – for replacement socks, personal items, finds bags, etc.
- Vest for collectibles and warmth
- Gloves (cloth or rubber/latex) flexible enough to grab things but a bit rugged so they don’t rip
- Waterproof Boots to keep socks and feet dry
- Pads (sometimes called “pattens”) to keep you from sinking in. If you google them you will find some videos on how to make them. Effective, very simple 12-inch wooden squares tied on with hemp string. They have been used for many hundreds of years in England!
- knee pads for rocky areas
- Walking Stick
- Brick-laying trowel to carefully lift items from the mud
- Magnifying glass to see fine details
- (Seriously) a hovercraft to get way out to the flat marshy tidal areas!
What can you find while mudlarking?
- Fossilized sea urchins
- Roman pot shards
- shell casings
- flint tools
- coins (English, French, etc.)
- bag seals
- decorative metal
- coin purse hinge and clasp
- air rifles
- brass knuckles
- shoes (even Roman shoes)
- Roman pot
- (and this is just the short list!)
Some people even keep the modern coins they find in a special container and give them to charity!
Safety Note (Dangerous Things)
People ALSO find sharp glass, blades, needles, pins, and other dangerous things. At the bottom of this article, there are other items listed such as “slipping on rocks, getting hit by speedboats or garbage barges, or sinking into mudholes. You may also be at risk for Weil’s Disease, a nasty bacterial infection that can spread through rat urine in the water.”
As with any outdoor activity, safety should always be a top priority when mudlarking. Make sure you are aware of the tides and don’t venture too far out into the water. Be cautious of slippery surfaces and unstable terrain, and always watch where you are stepping. It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you will be mudlarking and when you expect to return.
Popular mudlarking locations
England: While the River Thames may be the most well-known location for mudlarking, there are many other rivers, estuaries, and shorelines where you can search for historical artifacts. Some popular locations for mudlarking include the River Avon in Bristol, the River Tyne in Newcastle, and the River Mersey in Liverpool. The beaches along the coast of England also offer great opportunities for mudlarking, with many artifacts washing up on shore from shipwrecks and other historical events.
United States: Find places where there are likely to be remnants from earlier centuries. For example:
- Charleston, South Carolina, the sand along the Battery is where trash was dumped early in the nineteenth century.
- The Mississippi River
- Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn
- Along the banks of the Passaic River in NJ
- As of this writing, I even found an airbnb listing for a Northwest US mudlarking experience
- search online for “mudlarking in the United States” for other potential sites
There are likely to be good locations anywhere there is a tidal area and a history of civilization.
MAKE SURE you know you are going to a safe location and let someone know when you plan to return. Tidal areas in Florida, for example, may be too near gator habitats. Research for your specific area.
What to wear
When it comes to clothing for mudlarking, comfort and practicality are key. You will want to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty or wet, such as old jeans and a waterproof jacket. A hat and gloves can also be helpful in colder weather. Don’t forget to wear your boots, and consider bringing a change of clothes in case you get completely soaked.
Discovering historic artifacts while mudlarking
The thrill of mudlarking comes from the excitement of discovering historic artifacts that have been lost for centuries. Some common items found while mudlarking include pottery, coins, jewelry, and even human remains. These artifacts can provide valuable insights into the past and help us better understand our history and culture.
Over the years, many famous artifacts have been discovered while mudlarking. One of the most notable finds was the Thames Tunnel Shield, a massive cast-iron structure that was used to construct the Thames Tunnel in the 19th century. Other notable artifacts include a Roman helmet, a medieval pilgrim badge, and a 17th-century clay tobacco pipe.
Cleaning and preserving mudlarking finds
Once you have found a historical artifact while mudlarking, it’s important to clean and preserve it properly. Use a soft brush or toothbrush to gently clean the artifact, and avoid using any harsh chemicals that could damage it. Cleaning items at home is fun, but if the artifact is fragile, consider taking it to a professional for cleaning and preservation.
The legalities of mudlarking
While mudlarking can be a fun and exciting hobby, it’s important to be aware of the legalities surrounding it. In England, mudlarking is legal on public beaches and foreshores, but a permit is required for mudlarking on certain private property. It’s also important to be respectful of the environment and not disturb any protected areas or wildlife.
The future of mudlarking
As mudlarking continues to gain popularity, there is a growing concern about the impact it may have on historical artifacts and the environment. It’s important for mudlarks to be responsible and respectful when searching for artifacts, and to follow any rules or regulations put in place to protect historical sites.
Thames River London Mudlarking History
I ran across a really interesting hardcover book from 2019 about London’s past along the foreshore of the Tidal Thames and through central London. It has some pretty nice old maps which, along with the written word, highlight why the past produces such interesting finds in the present.
Why do old artifacts survive, allowing for mudlarks to find some pretty amazing stuff? It’s because of the dense, oxygen-free, muddy bottom.
For a synopsis of the history of mudlarks, read more from the Thames Museum.
Mudlarking is a fascinating way to explore history and connect with the past. With the right tools and equipment, as well as a respect for the environment and historical artifacts, it can be a rewarding hobby for anyone interested in uncovering lost treasures from the past. So grab your boots, your digging tools, and your sense of adventure, and head out to the nearest river or shoreline to start your mudlarking journey.
So for metal detectorists, now there are now TWO MORE branches of discovery and adventure we have… cousins called magnet fishing and now mudlarking!
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