Category Archives: Mudlarking

Musing on mudlarking and putting some finds into context

Since the mudlark we enjoyed at the beginning of October, I’ve spent some time finding out more about the pieces we found. What they were part of and how they were used. I know that most of the pieces are parts of cooking pots, pans and storage vessels. They would have broken at some point and then been thrown into the river Thames, which was a massive rubbish dump for at least two thousand years.

foreshoreAncient rubbish on the Thames foreshore

The pieces that may have formed a 16th or 17th century ale cistern have intrigued me for several reasons, partly because there are the marks of the potter’s hands on them – you can see where the potter created indentations, probably with a thumb, to give a better grip to the handle.

strap-handle-baseThe bottom of a strap handle, probably from a large jug or ale cistern – it shows the finger marks of the potter.

pot-rimsPieces of pot rim with part of the handle attached. I used a compass and estimate that these pots would have had a diameter of approximately 8.5cm

On, the underside of the piece shown top right you find the indentation of the potter’s fingers; this must have been made as the pot was lifted when the clay was still malleable and when I put my own hand to it, it fits the shape of my own fingers. Maybe this potter had similar sized hands to mine.


So how were these things used at the time? In what settings? How did the kitchens look and what was being cooked? Who used these kitchens?

I turned to looking at old paintings and came across the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (15 December 1610 – 25 April 1690), and his depictions of peasant life. They took me on a journey through time to the types of places my ancestors inhabited and gave me a glimpse of how their lives could have been.

kitchen Teniers - largeKitchen 1644 – note the open fire with meat roasting

Teniers used the same props time and again and some show up in many paintings – the jugs and dishes that sit on tables or on the floor; the benches the peasants sit on; a rough wooden block used for a foot rest; the same view of a particular tavern, where there is always a rag hanging from a hook on the wall next to the fireplace.

Teniers - tavern sceneSpot the rag, top right

In the background, there is often a seated woman holding a long-handled pan over the embers of a fire. She appears to be cooking pancakes. Did people eat a lot of pancakes in the 1600s? Other interiors show meat roasting on spits over open fires, while fish, game and fruits are prepared elsewhere.

Figures Gambling in a Tavern, 1670Figures Gambling in a Tavern, 1670. While the peasants drink and play cards, in the background a woman cooks pancakes over a fire. Is that man on the left peeing against the wall?

Teniers_David_1645-SmokerSmoker, 1645. The man in this picture is certainly peeing against the wall – note how the person in the drawing seems to be smirking at him. That tavern must have reeked!

In the paintings of merry-making, whether inside or out, somewhere in the image there is often a man urinating, being sick or sleeping off his excesses.

David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_Kermis_on_St_George's_Day_-_Google_Art_ProjectAt the edge of the merry-making, one man sleeps while another appears to vomit

People talk and laugh, sing and dance, caress one another, play cards, drink and smoke. All seems cheerful and no fights are shown.

Carnival 'The King Drinks', 1690-teniersCarnival ‘The King Drinks’, 1690 – again, pancakes are being cooked in the background

One can image the noise, musical instruments, singing and shouting, and probably the smell – wood and tobacco smoke, ale, food, grease, candle wax, urine, vomit, dog shit and body odour.

Peasants_in_an_Interior_(1661)_Adriaen_van_OstadePeasants in an Interior, 1661,  Adriaen van Ostade

There is a certain grossness to these images that both repulses and intrigues and I wonder if I would enjoy visiting the 1600s for a short time. One might be best advised to visit in the guise of a man in order to avoid the fondling that takes place; better yet to be invisible and a skilled linguist to understand what was being said.

I ask myself again, given the chance, would I visit? Thinking of my family’s history, they were country people from the north of England and were mainly farmers and millers. Although the records we have go back only to 1785 and the birth of my Great Great Great Great Grandfather, Joseph Hodgson, they were likely not dissimilar to the people in these paintings; peasants leading rural lives, closely entwined in their communities. They’d have attended local merry making and would probably have sung and danced with the best of them. So the answer is, I might not want to live there but, yes I’d visit, like a shot.

First Mudlarking trip on the Thames

On Saturday October 3rd, I did something I’ve wanted to do for a year or more – I went mudlarking on the Thames foreshore. I first came across mudlarking on Facebook, of all places – a community of interested people gather to share their finds, ask questions and help those asking for information. So many finds, so much knowledge. It seems there  are specialists in everything, from pottery to ancient shoe leather to vulcanised bottle tops – if there is something to be identified, someone in that group will know what it is and offer their knowledge. It’s a dream world and having pored over the photographs and descriptions for a while, I was seized with a desire to look for myself. It took some organising – the tide must be out at the right time on a weekend day and it had to fit in with the family members who were joining me and Karl – but we did it and I enjoyed every minute of scrabbling about on the little section of shore we chose for the day.

All pictures enlarge on clicking

IMG_5635Tide coming back in

The Thames foreshore is littered with discarded objects dating back over 2000 years, preserved in the anaerobic mud of the river. Each tide washes out a few more objects, which are gradually pushed up onto the foreshore by the force of the water. There they lie, to be picked up or covered over again as more washes up.

foreshoreSome of the jumble of ancient debris on the Thames foreshore, this looks like mainly building materials that were thrown into the river. Photo by Honza Vrba.

I had no idea what we’d find, though I did have vague wish-list. The cross Santa Claus face from a Bartmann jug, a wig curler, a shard of Roman Samian ware, or a bone hair pin would make my day. I didn’t find any of those things, but there was plenty to interest and here is the first of what I’ve so far identified.

The area we looked at seemed to be mainly medieval. No idea how it is that certain stretches of the shore gather objects from particular eras, but that seems to be the way it is.


One of the first objects I picked up was the foot of a medieval cooking pot, possibly 15th century, with traces of soot still on it. At one time, it probably looked like the one below and would have sat in the embers of the cooking fire.



Next was the bunghole from a medieval drink container, which would likely have held beer or cider. I first saw these on one of Richard Hemery’s excellent videos, where he describes mudlarking pieces and places them in their proper historical contexts. The inside looks like this –


I found a picture of an entire cistern which looks like it could have been similar to my find.

cisternLondon redware cistern, 1440-1600

There was a lot of what could loosely be called ‘red ware’ on the shore and this piece caught my eye.


The pattern was formed by a long-dead potter’s thumb, which made it feel close. It took me a while to find out what it might have been until I came across an entry on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website of a similar item, described as ‘A single rim sherd of a large 16th century vessel, possibly a pancheon [dough mixing pot] or cooking pot’. This site contains a database of hundreds of thousands of images and descriptions of objects and is a useful resource.

The inside of it was glazed.


One shard looked more modern, but on tracking it down it could well be a piece of a salt-glazed German drinking mug or jug from around the 15th century.



At one time, it might have looked something like this:

German stoneware vessels, 15/16th C.

The foreshore in the area we looked in was scattered with shards of medieval green-glazed pottery and one piece caught my eye. I wasn’t sure it was medieval to start with because it was quite a bright green. It had a point on it.


Which was definitely not just a chip because it was glazed.


And the clay seemed to have been folded.


I searched using every descriptive term I could think of, but the only thing that came close was a Surrey/Hampshire border ware chafing dish, 1480-1680. This one I posted to the Facebook group and it was agreed that it was a section of a dish that could well have looked something like this:


The final object of this blog had me puzzled for days. Initially I thought it might be what’s called a ‘strap handle’, as it is obviously strap-like rather than round, because it looked a bit like another piece I’d seen.


The clay was distinctly gritty, so it could be quite old, and it was only scored on one side. Parts of it appeared to be soot stained.




The ‘top’ bore traces of a mottled green glaze. I was a bit stumped so asked again of the mudlarking community and was told by Richard Hemery that it was very likely Coarse Border Ware dating from 1380-1450 and that it would have been part of a large cooking pot like the one below. The scores were to prevent such a thick item from cracking and breaking in the kiln. The oldest find yet and so tantalising to wonder when it was used and what might have been cooked in it.

cauldron leg

That’s it for today. Next I shall be attempting to identify some of the green-glazed pieces.

medieval green glazed