Mudlarker Jason Sandy's guide to treasure-hunting

Old brass buttons

Mudlarker Jason Sandy's guide to treasure-hunting

Photographs Jason Sandy

Mudlarker Jason Sandy describes the magical draw that the River Thames holds over him, and runs us through his favourite finds…

What is the appeal of mudlarking to you?
It is an incredible feeling to discover and hold an artefact knowing that the last person to touch the object lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago. What a thrill experiencing hands-on history! Unlike pieces kept behind glass in museums, which can only be observed from an impersonal distance, the Thames foreshore allows anyone to touch and feel history for themselves.

A piece of pottery on a rock on the Thames

What makes the Thames so special?
As the longest archaeological site in Britain, the foreshore of the River Thames contains an incredible amount of historic artifacts that even pre-date London’s existence. Each piece, whether mundane or extraordinary, tells us something unique about London’s history.

The Thames foreshore is an intertidal zone that appears for only a few hours a day before disappearing again beneath the turbulent currents. Most people (even Londoners) don’t realise that the River Thames is tidal. The water level fluctuates by seven metres twice a day. Walking in this intertidal zone and exploring a unique part of London which is only accessible for a very short time is incredibly exciting and exhilarating. It is a tranquil, calm and quiet environment, completely detached from urban life above. As the murky waters slowly recede and flow towards the sea at low tide, the exposed foreshore becomes an enchanting and mystical place where time has stopped. The riverbed is an eclectic mixture of rocks, oyster shells, broken glass, bricks, terracotta tiles, animal bones, sand gravel and mud. Hidden within this terrain are historical artefacts deposited or dropped into the river centuries ago, waiting to be discovered and to reveal long-lost stories. We are not able to travel back in time, but by finding an artefact, untouched since it was lost hundreds or even thousands of years ago, we develop a deep, tangible connection to the history of our city and the personal lives of our forefathers.

Is there a particular period of history that fascinates you most?
My father got his PhD in Classical Studies and is a professor who teaches Ancient Greek. I was forced by him to study Latin in high school, and I hated it! Back then, ancient Rome seemed so abstract and distant. Now, I am fascinated by Roman Londinium, which was founded in 43 AD and ended in circa 426 AD. I have found numerous artefacts from the Roman settlers who lived in London when it was only a trading village on the western frontier of the mighty Roman Empire. I am fascinated by this period of history and am constantly looking for Roman items on the foreshore. I have found numerous Roman coins, gaming counters, pottery sherds, tesserae, personal items, etc. With each find, I discover something new about the Romans living in London over 1,500 years ago.

 An old coin on a red backgroundA piece with an image of the sun on sand

How often do you get to go mudlarking?
Because of the lunar cycles, the best low tides occur every two weeks, and I normally go mudlarking four times a month. In spring, there are extremely low tides in daytime, and in summer, there are fantastic low tides at night. Therefore, I go mudlarking more often in spring and summertime.

Do you have any tips – are there certain conditions or physical marks to look out for when trying to find likely places for objects?
The river currents naturally collect and sort objects of the same weight and density and deposit them in long bands as the tide recedes. If you are looking for pottery and clay pipes, look out for bands of white objects laying on the surface. If you are searching for coins and metallic objects, look for dark bands where the foreshore is eroding and revealing the black mud below. Concentrate on areas where there are patches of pins and you will find other metallic objects such as cloth seals, buttons, tokens, coins and other metallic objects. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to searching for objects, so be patience and keep going back!

Colourful pottery bowls

What has been your favourite find?
It is difficult to choose one find.  I have four top finds:

  • A Roman carved bone hairpin depicting a woman’s face and unique hairstyle. The artefact has been dated to 43-100 AD by a Finds Liaison Officer, and it is currently on permanent display in the Museum of London.
  • A rare Roman coin forger’s mould. It was used to illegally forge denarius coins of Severus Alexander who reigned from 222-235 AD.
  • A pewter boar badge from the infamous King Richard III from 1483 AD. The badge could have been worn to his coronation. I donated the artifact to the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester where the badge is currently being used for teaching and learning purposes.
  • A 14th century Medieval brass knuckle guard from a knight’s gauntlet. It is very similar in design to the Black Prince’s gauntlet on display in the Canterbury Cathedral.

And what has been your most valuable find?
I found an extremely rare Commonwealth pewter farthing from Oliver Cromwell that was only in circulation for two weeks in 1654 before being withdrawn.

A fragment of old ceramics with blue animals painted on

…And weirdest?
There are bones everywhere on the foreshore. In some locations, you can only see layers and layers of bones completely covering the foreshore. The weirdest bones I have found are a complete dog’s skull and part of a wild boar’s skull including the iconic curved tusks. A whale’s skeleton was found in the Thames by workmen several years ago, and my friend has found a dolphin’s skull on the foreshore.

Jason Sandy (@jasonmudlark) is working with the Thames Museum Trust to create a museum dedicated to the river that will exhibit some of his mudlark finds.

*A license from the Port of London Authority is required to mudlark on the Thames foreshore.

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