Treasure Hunting on the Thames

When lockdown precautions first lifted last summer, artist Jorja Bolton decided to try something new: mudlarking on the Thames. Chronicling her adventures for Lichen, Bolton’s treasures narrate a city’s history.

Text, illustrations and photography by Jorja Bolton

Collecting has dominated my practice ever since moving to London; in my first month here, I was scuttling around chasing windswept bus tickets on Vauxhall Bridge, charmed by the life behind them, piecing together the puzzle of the objects’ past. I still constantly collect things, experiences and occasionally: treasures.  Like when I found myself on the Thames foreshore in July.

2020 made me question the amount of green space London has to offer.  When the city closed down, abandoning us, it left us with nothing but the outdoors.  Something London doesn’t seem to have much of.  Full to the brim with office space but blades of grass are few and far between. Along with thousands of other Londoners I took to Hampstead Heath, the capital of Green, but the only place marginally similar to the seaside are the banks of the Thames when the water dissipates, revealing London’s skeletal remains covered in mud.  

Mudlarking is a term that arose in the late 18th century, coined for people who scavenge in river mud for items of value, similar to the role of a gleaner who forages leftover crops from farmers’ fields.  The muddy shore would be combed by mudlarks intermittently, following the ebb and flow of the tides for anything they thought could be sold.  The typical mudlark would be the city’s destitute: either young, 8-15, or over 50, the robust elderly.  Inherently dictated by the class system, lack of skills and lack of money meant the options for survival heavily relied on mudlarking.  It came with an array of positives and negatives as the work was at one’s own accord with the ability to choose when you work with no distractions, total solitude.  However, the work was often nausating due to the nature of the Thames, with an unfortunately likely chance of digging up remnants of corpses.  Jolt to present day and mudlarks are amateur archaeologists hoping to dig up mysteries fit for a museum from the sludge.

Mudlarking findings , photograph: Jorja Bolton

Edging down the moss-covered stairs, taking that first step on the shore like an astronaut on Mars, you’re bombarded with debris.  The tranquillity assures you that you could spend hours upon hours down here, letting the world go by and you wouldn’t even notice because your head’s in a trance, gazing at the ground.  So much to sift through, you feel like a child again, on one of many English seaside holidays searching for shells to decorate your sand empire.  Glass, rocks, tiles and shells occupy the majority of the rubble landscape but if time and luck are on your side you could be met with clay pipes, old coins or anything of importance from London’s historical past. 

Further along the bank is a lady kitted out with all the gear, definitely not something they wore back in the early 19th century, that’s for sure.  Wellies, gloves, head torch, waders, she probably even has the PLA licence to match, something that you technically need if you’re a serious mudlark.  In July, you can rock up any time of day knowing you’ll catch a low tide but as soon as winter hits, the minimal sunlight hours aren’t on your side. You’ll need to keep a close eye on the tidal times as occasionally you might be waiting a week before the sun shines again over the naked banks. 

Climbing back up onto dry land with jingling pockets, the pride becomes hard to bear.  You’d harvested an array of items, mostly different hues of rocks, shells and pieces of pottery and glass, nothing a seasoned mudlark would bother to indulge.  They’ve seen it all before, but as we all know, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and who knows how lucky you might be on your next trip down to the Thames.

Original artwork by Jorja Bolton. Jorja Bolton is a London-based contemporary artist, to see and learn more about Jorja’s art you can visit her website here or Instagram.

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