Members of the London-based Society of Thames Mudlarks look very different today from the Victorian street children the group takes its name from. Where ragged waifs once searched for bits of bone and coal to sell, men in overalls, gloves, and rubber boots now comb the River Thames foreshore with metal detectors.
And though these amateur treasure hunters seldom find silver or gold, historians say what they do dig from the mud is transforming our understanding of childhood during the Middle Ages.
Many Mudlark finds have been displayed as part of a touring exhibition of Britain entitled Buried Treasure. Organized by the British Museum, London, the exhibition highlights the growing contribution of non-professionals, particularly metal detectorists, in unearthing historically-important finds.
Among the showcased items are exquisite Iron Age gold necklaces, Anglo-Saxon jewels, and a hoard of Roman treasure. The Mudlark finds may be less eye-catching, but they are well represented thanks to the insights they provide into medieval society.
Dating from as early as the 13th century, items include tiny cannons and guns, metal figurines, and miniaturized household objects such as stools, jugs, cauldrons, and even frying pans complete with little fish.
Made mainly from pewter (a tin-lead alloy), these medieval toys are exceptionally rare and have helped transform perceptions of childhood during the Middle Ages, says Hazel Forsyth, curator of post-medieval collections at the Museum of London.
“In the 1960s French historian Philippe Aries claimed that there wasn’t really such a thing as childhood in the Middle Ages and that parents didn’t form emotional attachments with their offspring, regarding them as economic providers or producers for the household. And for very many years, people believed this,” Forsyth said, noting that it has only been recently, with discovery of ancient childhood items by contemporary treasure hunters, “that we’ve challenged this received wisdom.”
The fact that the Thames passes through the heart of London makes the waterway’s foreshore (the riverbank exposed between high and low tide) one of Britain’s most important archaeological sources.
A prime source for objects found along the Thames today, outside boating accidents of centuries past, is ancient domestic rubbish. Such trash, which included old or broken toys, was used to backfill timber revetments, or embankments, built along the river up to about 1500.
Founded in 1980, the Society of Thames Mudlarks has some 70 members. Forsyth says they are publicity shy. Under the licensing agreement allowing them to go metal detecting along the Thames, however, they must report historical finds to the Museum of London.
The museum now holds around 1,000 Mudlark finds, though not all are made from pewter. Many of the miniature guns and cannons were once working replicas and consist of copper alloy to withstand firing pressures.
“The largest of them are equivalent to a pocket pistol. So [they’re] perfectly capable of killing somebody,” Forsyth said. “It’s obvious they are not perfect replicas. But we know they worked, because some of the barrels have exploded. If these were being used by children, then they probably met with an unfortunate accident. Certainly children had access to black powder and could use all sorts of projectiles.”
The miniatures weren’t the only playthings that worked. For instance, tiny copper cauldrons have been found with sooty bases, suggesting children used them to cook food. Other replicas, including a three-legged stool, a birdcage, and tools such as saws, are important because no previous record of these objects is known for the period. “It enriches what we know about the medieval household in terms of the contents of a house.”
Despite the exhibition’s title, Buried Treasure isn’t just about objects made of silver or gold. True treasures are those that illuminate the past.
Excerpted from National Geographic
Exhibit review at Times Online