A young Roman woman walks along the bank of the river Tamesis. She is thinking perhaps of her parent’s home some hundreds of miles away from Londinium where she now lives, or of dinner not far off, or maybe of her husband, or a lover, or the particular smell of the spring air and the little gusts of wind that raise goose bumps along her arms. A serving girl has helped her dress and braided her dark and curling hair in a thick crown atop her head. Her skin, oiled and perfumed, is draped in fabric that gathers in folds around her waist.
She stops to look out across the water—so brown and cold and ringed with reedy marsh plants where long-legged gray birds linger in the last vestiges of sunlight. Just then, as she turns, one of her bone hairpins slides from her head and drops into the muddy water. A tendril of hair escapes her braid and flattens against her cheek, held there by the wind. From the surface of the river below, the reflection of her face, herself but not, stares back at her.
In 2015, while walking along the London foreshore, Jason Sandy discovered a small carved hairpin, probably bone, most likely Roman, nestled in the bank of the Thames. In the photo he posted to his Instagram, the find is still in situ and lies next to bits of shell and rock. The pin features the bust of a tiny figure, who wears a hat or maybe a headdress decorated with small notches in a grid-like pattern; the figure’s face is worn, but a nose, eyes, smiling mouth, even miniscule eyebrows are clear and delicately crafted. Upon closer inspection, Jason determined the pin was indeed Roman, and was lost in the river somewhere between 43 AD and 100 AD, a date range that encompasses Emperor Claudius’ initial conquest and the settlement of the first civilian colonies of Roman Britain. The hairpin is now on permanent display in the Museum of London’s Roman gallery.
Jason Sandy is a mudlark, and a member of the Society of Thames Mudlarks and Antiquarians. Mudlarks are hobbyists who hold special permits that allow them to comb the river’s sandy embankments hunting for historic treasure. The best hunting grounds however require another kind of license, and the city allows only fifty of these permits to circulate at a time, meaning that a mudlark must retire before another can join. Jason and other eagle-eyed searchers have found ancient coins of all kinds, Victorian pottery, contemporary engagement rings, unexploded WWII bombs, and Mesolithic flint tools dating from as far back as 8500 BC, to name a few.
Along with Jason, I follow at least five mudlarks on social media. Each mudlark has a different interest, which is why I like to keep tabs on a range. Some post pictures of buttons and buckles, others pottery and porcelain. This week a woman named Florrie has found a neolithic worked blade. In her post, the piece of stone blade rests on her fingertips. It is wet and the sun catches each notch and carved edge. Florrie writes, “I can’t confess to know more about it, but I like to imagine!”
I too like to imagine who might’ve made such a tool, and how it happened to end up in the water. And while I have an interest in the archeological details, the material the knife is constructed from and the process of dating it; I’m much more excited by the impossibility of actually knowing much of anything for certain about an object so old, and how this conjecture allows for the creation of story.
As a child I was preoccupied with dinosaurs and mummies. I told everyone I met that I wanted to be an archeologist, though I struggled a bit with the pronunciation. In response, my father took me bottle digging, which is not mudlarking exactly, but a close cousin. He’d grown up following his older brothers as they picked through abandoned Victorian garbage dumps in the fields behind their house in Long Island. The walls of my grandmother’s basement are covered in the spoils. Lavender, cerulean blue, and ominous green, they found whiskey bottles, poison bottles, and curiously shaped ‘torpedo’ bottles, which are rounded on the bottom and originally held some of the first carbonated beverages. Sometimes the bottles were stoppered with crumbling cork and when you picked them up they sloshed with liquid.
When I was five or six my father and I came across a shallow cave, really a crevasse between two rocks, a few feet off the path of a trail we took frequently through the woods near our home in Pennsylvania. The cave was inexplicably covered in a healthy layer of fluorescent pink and blue gravel, the kind used to decorate fish tanks. The next day we returned with garden trowels and boar bristle painter’s brushes. Of course, we didn’t find anything except some sharpied graffiti, though I remember taking home ziploc baggies of colored rocks to add to my collection of butterfly wings, chipped pottery and other detritus I picked up and kept in a box above my bed. It didn’t matter to me that the aquarium gravel was essentially worthless. Its appearance was a delicious mystery, and that was enough.
Another of my perhaps strange obsessions is a long-running British television show called Time Team, in which archeologists are allotted three days to investigate a historically significant site in the UK. I love seeing the archeologists bicker about where to dig and pour over aerial images and geophysics data. But most of all, I look forward to the illustrations at the end of each episode. During each three-day dig, artist Victor Ambrus accompanies the team of archeologists and sketches depictions of what the site might have looked like in its prime. In the first episode I can remember watching, a partial Saxon brooch was uncovered in one of the trenches. Rusted and caked in dirt, it’s hard to see what the fuss is about. In Ambrus’ illustration however, the brooch is restored. It holds the fabric at a young woman’s chest, as she tends to a cooking fire. Her round cheeks are flushed and her expression concentrated. Ambrus’ work turns fields of farmland into bustling roman villas, hobnail shaped imprints in the ground into a solemn Viking boat burial, one tesserae into a mosaic.
For most, I imagine Ambrus’ pictures are an afterthought, or merely signal the beginning of the credit sequence. But there is something in his work that fascinates me. Ambrus peoples his illustrations with women laughing as they weave, teenage girls laying clothes to dry, and dogs running underfoot. When the archeologists find the grave of a child, the tiny body arranged with precision and care, Ambrus paints parents to mourn her. In his drawings there are details impossible to know, the exact color of a medieval tunic, or the look in a soldier’s eye as he rides to battle. In his illustrations there is the understanding of mystery, and simultaneously the desire to imagine. This May marks the end of the first year of my MFA program and in Ambrus’ paintings I see my own yearning towards storytelling.
Recently, at a dinner party with other writer friends, over glasses of beer sweating with condensation, someone asked what we had all wanted to be when we were little. I hadn’t thought about my archeological dreams in a long time. It struck me suddenly that what I had wanted to do as a child was to look for stories, and that I am not so dissimilar now. The objects I found had no monetary value, but to me they held their own currency, and allowed me to trade in possibility. The world then held for me an expectation that turned the mundane into the extraordinary.
The Thames itself provides an ideal environment for the preservation of materials that might otherwise disintegrate. The anaerobic mud of the river is devoid of any oxygen, a fact which halts normal corrosion or wear so that a pointed medieval leather shoe, another of Jason’s finds, appears largely as supple and soft as the day it fell into the water. The river also offers shelter for metal objects that on land would have likely been melted down or reused. Such is the case with rare coins and tokens, but also with small pewter children’s toys. Once in the water they were protected from the churning cycles of human life, and now, found again, these tiny discoveries can fill in archeologist’s gaps in knowledge, and tell us more about childhoods long past.
Because the Thames was a working river, and not naturally shaped for such it was constantly under repairs. Originally broad and shallow, the Thames was gradually transformed, first by the Romans and then by medieval Britain, into a deep tidal canal suited for heavy maritime traffic. Walls needed to be built and maintained to defend against the flooding of central London, where much of the city was under the high-water line. These walls were fortified with factory scraps, shells, and rocks, and the ceaseless packing and repacking meant that normally distinct archaeological layers mixed so that Saxon now lies next to Roman, next to early modern, next to Regency.
When I was small, my dad picked up delicately carved arrowheads in our backyard and taught me how to identify the chiseled marks in the stone that differentiated the weapon from the others beside it. But he also carted home dozens of plain old rocks, chosen by me for their size or texture or some other indescribable logic which makes sense only to a child. The dashboard of his car still houses some of my favorites, though I myself have long since forgotten what about them called to me.
Recently, I’ve been trying to pay better attention. I’ve been told I have a habit of looking at the ground when I walk. Friends complain that I miss their waves and hellos, because, as always, I was looking resolutely at my feet. When I was little, I was looking for treasures down there. My pockets were weighed down with smoothened rocks, blue jay feathers, and plastic bottle caps. When my mother complained about the mess in my jackets or the trash at the bottom of my backpack, I reasoned that I was an inventor. I needed my eraser fragments and bottle caps to make something new.
Now, I wonder if I’m not looking close enough, if I’m just averting my eyes by habit. I don’t carry home perfect red leaves at the start of autumn. When I walk along the river path a few miles from my city apartment in Virginia, I don’t check for arrowheads or shards of pottery. As a writer, I’ve always prided myself on my ability to notice. But often, lately, I have my eyes glued to my phone; I’m thinking about this month’s rent or grading my student’s essays. The world doesn’t feel like it holds unfathomable possibilities, sometimes it just feels hard. The wonder isn’t easy to come by.
When tropical storm Eunice swept through London a few months ago it tore a segment of the plastic roof off of the iconic O2 arena. Twitter was alight with the news of the O2’s evacuation, and with pictures of the roof; the shredded fiberglass fabric rustling in the wind like a skirt. Days later, while scouring his usual haunts Jason Sandy found a piece of the roof’s tarp-like material floating in the river. In his accompanying Instagram post, Jason is beaming as he brandishes what looks essentially like a heavy duty white garbage bag. Never would he have thought he’d be so excited to find a piece of plastic, he says. The piece of roof is a part of modern history, he proclaims! In Jason’s hands the O2’s ruined siding, and what we leave behind, becomes part of a story that began before the Romans, that has seen empires rise and fall, and yet continues to unfold. And in Jason’s joy over his discovery, I see my magpie younger self ecstatic to uncover the layers of blue and pink gravel. I wonder what some future mudlarker might think of the pieces of the O2 roof still in the river, how they might explain its presence—what stories they might tell about us?
For years, hundreds of gleaming red garnets have washed up onto the rocky shoreline where mudlarks hunt. Scattered between the splinters of waterlogged wood and aluminum ring pulls that litter the beach, the Thames garnets are often found in clusters. Varying in size from chipped fragments to whole glistening orbs the width of a thumbnail, the stones are one of the river’s most enduring perplexities.
Mudlarks have different hypotheses to explain the gemstones. Most think that they might be the byproduct of industry. Garnets have a hardness of 7.5 on the Mohs Scale, and can be used as an abrasive agent; crushed into a fine grain, garnets are used in sandblasting or polishing, and can even cut steel. Based on where the gems are found in Central London, it is indeed possible that they might be some kind of waste product from the Victorian factories that lined the river. However, considering the stones’ quality and size it seems more likely that they would have been found set into a pair of earrings than in a factory.
Which is why others imagine a more sinister answer. The garnets are almandine, originally hailing from India or South Asia, and might have been brought to London along the British East India Company’s trade routes from the 1600s on. Perhaps some enterprising crew aboard a merchant ship saw more value in losing his cargo than delivering it. He would have made a profit off of the stolen goods at any of the inns that dotted the strand. Could a sailor have dropped a bag or two or twenty into the midnight depths hoping to retrieve it at low tide? Might he have returned, furtive and desperate, soaking his clothes and boots in the mucky water? How long would he search with his heart pounding in his mouth and the sound of the river lapping at the dock in his ears before relinquishing the jewels?
I like this version of the story. Not for its truthfulness—I’m no historian and feel ill-equipped to the task of creating definitive certainty from a myriad of possibilities—but rather I enjoy imagining the garnets moving from human hand to hand rather than entering the water as runoff from some unknowable machine. There was the sailor, and then hundreds of years later there is the mudlark, Florrie, running after her three year old daughter who is grasping in her tiny fingers an incredible garnet, one and a quarter inches in length and the largest found in the Thames. When asked about the stone by the press, Florrie replies that they might commission a jeweler to set it one day. But for now her daughter keeps it in her bedroom taking it out of its box occasionally to look into its many faceted surfaces and hold it up to the light.
Many mudlarkers reference a connection with the river, as if the Thames has an almost magical property—an ability to link one to another across time. Sometimes when mudlarks find a clay pipe on the riverbed, they leave it behind. Commonly used from the 16-18th centuries so many of these clay pipes have been found that now collectors often have quite a few back at home. So, the pipes are left for the next mudlark to happen upon. Each mudlark is simply one moment in the Thames history, and they seek to gently tend to its future.
Within the mudlarks, and my fascination with them, there is desire to memorialize. Or maybe a desire to participate in story. Where an archeologist works towards an answer or an uncovering of fact, the mudlark frequently admits to not knowing. To wondering. When a mudlark posts a photo of some half eroded metal coin, whose face has been almost entirely obliterated by the silty bottom of the river, the comments below are full of guesses. A farthing? Half penny? Something old? Something new? Commenters imagine who might’ve carried the coin, and what they might have spent it on. How did it get in the water?
Mudlarks seem to understand themselves as existing within the river’s continuum, both a part and apart. They straddle the desire to understand, and the knowledge that they cannot.
For British jeweler and mudlarker Ruth Tomlinson, the Thames garnets serve as a bridge both to the past but also to the future. Using Tudor dress pins, sea glass, Saxon beads, and of course the glittering red garnets, Tomlinson has crafted four gold rings, which she calls “OffeRings.” After their completion, the rings were thrown back into the river in the hopes that they might be found again some hundreds of years from now.
I imagine a ring, its soft golden curves blurred and dulled. Clouds brew overhead, it could be early spring. Maybe it will rain soon? The tarnished metal is almost indistinguishable from the sand. Footsteps near, and thick rubber boots squelch in the mud. A garnet glints in the river, so quick it’s almost missed. Then a hand is reaching.
It is a woman’s hand that extends towards the rippling surface of the Thames, and as she bends she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror of the water. Distorted by the texture of the river, her reflection is both herself and not, and in the seconds before her fingers close around the ring, a thousand possibilities rush through her head.
CELIA CUMMISKEY is a second year MFA candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work can be found in Post Road magazine, Phoebe, and elsewhere. She lives in Richmond, VA.
Art: “101” by M P Pratheesh, Photograph of an installation