The 1950 B-film The Mudlark tells of an urchin who ekes out an unpleasant existence scavenging the slimy Thames foreshore. He finds a coin bearing the head of Queen Victoria, and creeps into Windsor Castle to see the sequestered sovereign for himself. Through sheer goodhearted pluck, he succeeds where sophisticated politicians have failed, appealing to the Queen’s feelings and reawakening her sense of public duty. Modern mudlarking is a hobby rather than a necessity, but chance finds of apparently insignificant items can convey powerful emotions.
Over 23 squelchy years, Lara Maiklem has amassed a battered and stained collection of everyday things turned talismanic by time and immersion. The Thames is the longest archaeological site in the world, running from the obelisk at Teddington, marking the limit of the tidal Thames, to its battered cousins on the Yantlet Line between Southend and Hoo. Maiklem has prospected as much of this frequently feculent, sometimes toxic Troy as she can, often on hands and knees, blasted by easterlies, disoriented in fogs or almost cut off by tides. She has crossed from Middlesex to Surrey dry-shod, pried among the ribs of broken ships, seen Traitor’s Gate from water level and considered the course of riparian history from Greenwich, ‘where time begins at the Prime Meridian’.
She disdains metal-detecting as disrespectfully predatory. Her trove nevertheless encompasses amber, garnets, pieces of Londinium hypocaust, beads, tiles, boar tusks, gold lace-ends, handmade bricks, nit-combs, thimbles, buckled shoes, shards of bellarmines and clay pipes, hand-blown bottles, toy soldiers and letters of the drowned Dove typeface, tipped into the Thames by its high-minded creator in 1913 to avoid its use on lesser texts (she has, perhaps presumptuously, used it for chapter headers). Other finds are too redolent to be retrievable — recent wedding rings, or the heavy box labelled ‘Remains of the Late…’.