Mudlarking. No I didn't know what it was either until I was ankle deep in sludge on the banks of the Thames picking up 300 year old horse bones! My friend suggested it as a belated birthday present and I thought it sounded brilliant! Larking around in mud, I thought. God, it could have been mud wrestling in bikinis for all I knew but I said "yes" anyway.
So the day of larking was last Sunday, a surprisingly scorching hot day in October. My friend, her son and I tromped off down to the river to meet our hostess Mary. Mary was one of those ageing, hippy intellectuals, an archeologist of all things river, with long grey hair and ruddy cheeks. She seemed genuinely overwhelmed that so many people had shown up for the mudlarking. "Usually," she said, "I only get half a dozen or so". She was faced with about 50 of us, all with the same idea that it would be fun to lark about by the river because the weather was so bloomin nice! I asked one lanky woman if she was there for the mudlarking and she looked at me slightly worryingly and said "if you mean the beach-combing, then yes!". Spoilsport... she obviously got her invite from the inappropriate name club because I certainly know of no beach on the River Thames! Wellies and rubber gloves were put on and we followed Mary down some precarious steps to the river bank. I have to add here that she lectured us for half an hour before handing out latex surgeons gloves, on the dangers of the Thames water, that it was full of diseases and so on. Being incredibly British though, she said "but only one person has died and that's because he stupidly jumped into Camden Lock i.e. stagnant water!" Mary and sympathy are not at home together.
By now, you all know how accident prone I am and within seconds I had stepped too close to the waters edge at the same time as a River Police boat whizzed past, sending the rotten, diseased, killer water over the tops of my boots. I was sloshing around waiting for the plague to possess me when I scratched myself on some fetid metal (probably 16th century, therefore Black Death era) and ripped my surgical glove. I was a walking contamination unit. I told Mary what had happened and she just shrugged. So I shrugged, put on my flip-flops and carried on.
Here's what I picked up and Mary's conclusion:
Lots of bones I thought were human. Mary told me they were probably a few hundred years old and probably horse or cow bones from the knackers yard or glue factory. Nice.
Bits of pottery I thought were valuable. Mary told me they were probably a few hundred years old and not much of anything interesting.
Lots of handmade nails and metalwork. Mary said there were thousand just like it.
The sole of a shoe with nails still in it. Mary made a sort of "engh" noise and handed it back.
Mary, we discovered, didn't get too excited by anything we showed her. But when I asked her about the most amazing thing she had ever found, well, blow me down, we couldn't shut her up. It was cool though because some years ago she had discovered, right in the spot we were standing, a human 15th Century skull which had shown signs of being operated on. A big hole in this mans brain which hadn't been the cause of death. Therefore Mary had found the earliest ever skull to show surgery and it now sits in the British Museum. After that story, we had a sudden burst of enthusiasm and then all meandered off for a drink and a scrub!
It was a brilliant day, fairly disgusting on my part due to failed equipment but I am not dead so that's a bonus.