Mudlarkers dig centuries-old miniatures out of the River Thames

From trash to treasure.

A mudlarker is one who searches the muddy shores of the River Thames at low tide for small objects. The Thames served as a garbage dump for Londoners for thousands of years, making it, according to expert mudlarker (oh to have that job title…) Lara Maiklem, “the longest and most varied archeological site in the world.”

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Photograph of Lara Maiklem, courtesy of the Guardian. Maiklem is publishing a book on mudlarking, set to come out next year.

Maiklem doesn’t describe herself as an archeologist or treasure hunter, but rather a “seeker and collector of pieces of human history.” A quick glance at the London Mudlark Facebook page confirms this, as it displays a dizzying array of antique bottlenecks, old war medals, Roman hair pins, clay pipes, wig curlers, combs, thimbles, medieval coins, and cuff links. What caught my eye, of course, were the figurines, dolls, and other miniatures.

Here's my collection of frozen Charlottes, all found in the mud of the Thames foreshore over a number of years. Two are unglazed bisque porcelain, the rest are glazed. These tiny China dolls were produced in vast numbers between c.1850 and c.1920 and were sold for around a penny. They were originally produced in Germany and were popular as bathing dolls; in the UK they were often baked into cakes and Christmas puddings as a surprise for children. In the U.S. they became associated with a popular poem of the time called Young Charlotte, it told the true tale of a young woman who failed to heed her mother's advice and froze to death one New Year’s Eve while out riding with her sweetheart in an open sleigh: He took her hand in his – O, God! 'Twas cold and hard as stone, He tore the mantle from her face, cold stars upon it shone; Then quickly to the glowing hall, her lifeless form he bore, Fair Charlotte's eyes were closed in death, her voice was heard no more. #reenactment #reenactor #pottery #portableantiquitiesscheme #mudmen #mudlark #mudlarks #mudlarking #thames #london #londonmudlark #metaldetecting #beachcomber #beachcombing #found #pottery #frozencharlotte #antiques #armchairmudlark #archeology #artefact #doll #toy#vintage #victorian

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Part of the fun of following all the mudlarkers on instagram and facebook is joining them on their quest to identify, sometimes with the help of experts, the items discovered on their latest trip. The objects are often well-preserved, owing to the anaerobic (lack of oxygen) nature of the mud.

Mudlarking wasn’t always for young urbanites looking for a hobby or an off-the-beaten-path London tour, however. It originated in the 18th and 19th centuries as a way for impoverished youth, and sometimes old men, to make a little money. Work conditions were horrible, as raw sewage dumped in the river carried excrement, waste, and sometimes corpses. They sold their finds (often coal, rope, and old nails) at local shops for a meager amount. Today, by contrast, you need a permit to become a mudlarker, and the only real danger is ensuring you don’t get stuck at high tide.

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Photo courtesy of Cool Places (the best places to stay in the uk)

Being a tiny-things-enthusiast living in the wrong city (dammit Paris), I am supremely jealous of these mudlarkers and their adventures. Here are more of my favorite miniatures, toys, and other objects I’ve found digging (figuratively 😦 ) around mudlarkers’ social media accounts:

Part of a pewter toy horse and carriage, 17th – early 18th century #mudlarking #thamesandfield

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Bonjour #instagram

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Diversity is our strength! I recently found this Islamic pendant on the Thames foreshore. It is in the shape of a little book with Arabic text, so assume it depicts the Holy Quran. London is one of the greatest global cities because of its rich cultural diversity, where people of every nation live in harmony. As an American living in London, I am proud to live in a city where the Mayor is a Muslim and live in a country where the Prime Minister is a woman. Instead of alienating Muslim countries with ludicrous travel bans and building ridiculous walls to keep out the 'bad hombres,' we should be inspiring generations to be positive leaders, to respect and celebrate our diversities, take care of refugees and change our world through love, not fear! #mudlark #mudlarking #mudlarkingfinds #thamesforeshore #thames #riverthames #londonmudlark #sadiqkhan #hope

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War games have always been popular. Toys, like this one I found on the Thames foreshore, tell us a lot about children's playtime activities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These toy soldiers are still in production today, except that the soldiers are now made out of green plastic instead of poisonous lead. Even I used to play with the green plastic soldiers when I was a kid. Nowadays, kids play realistic war games like 'Call of Duty' and 'Assassin's Creed.' Can anyone make out what this soldier is doing? Is he a bugle boy blowing his trumpet? #mudlark #mudlarking #mudlarkingfinds #thamesforeshore #riverthames #londonmudlark #archaeology #artefact #fragment #history #beachcomber #beachcombing #beachcombingfinds #metaldetecting #metaldetector #treasure #treasurehunter #vintage #toy #soldier #war

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A selection of toys – 17th century pewter plate, 1920s lead car, 18th century toy watch and a small clay chicken toy c.17th century. Courtesy of London Mudlark.
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A tin bath and broken pitcher. Courtesy of London Mudlark.

Via the Guardian and Messy Nessy Chic

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