long . lines and ripples

Where Everything You Find is Treasure

The New York Times had a write-up yesterday about an urban hobby, made possible by tides of twenty feet or more in London’s River Thames: “mudlarking,” the scavenging of just-buried artifacts that are revealed when the tide of the river that flows through the city center goes out.

thames mudlarking relics
Mudlarking relics from the Thames. Many eras represented.
Alexander Savin (flickr); Creative Commons; Original.

Most of the article is about the original history of the term, when it was a subsistence activity undertaken by the poor looking to sell valuable scrap. Today, the activity has become popular enough recreation that London requires mudlarkers to be licensed; there’s even an exclusive “Society of Thames Mudlarks” in London that is capped at 50 members.

The most anthropologically interesting question about this activity is why people do it, if we can be a little more specific than just “curiosity.” We get a little insight into that because the Times article is built around one woman, Lara Maiklin, who has made herself into a sort of public spokesperson fpr mudlarking. Maiklin, who says she has been mudlarking since the early 2000s, chronicles her finds on several Instagram accounts, and has just pulled together a well-received recent book on the activity.1 She gives us a sense of her motivation at the end of the article:

While Ms. Maiklem recently moved out of the city, she still makes the journey to the Thames weekly, driven by the thrill of discovery. From here, the hustle of London seems a world away, with gulls cruising between the barges and the old warehouses turned luxury apartments that stand on the north side of the river, a sign of the ever-changing city. The Shard — London’s tallest and one of its most recognizable skyscrapers — juts in the distance, reflecting the morning light from its thousands of glass windows. “It’s a way of just escaping from all of this controlled chaos,” Ms. Maiklem said, gesturing to the skyline. “This is what London is about for me.”

The way the interviewer transcribes her answer to the final question leaves it ambiguous. What is Maiklin’s “this,” the thing that “London is about for me?” Is it the city itself, with its quotidian life that takes place mostly among tall buildings? Or is it the diversion, what lies just beneath the water in the Thames? I expect it’s the latter, that what is hidden is more real than the everyday.

Worlds apart from the everyday have been having a moment lately.

Chernobyl–the nuclear meltdown, the city, the aftermath–has also been a a source of media fascination in the last few years, with an HBO miniseries, high-profile books, and so forth. One can also easily tour the actual site like it’s Disneyland. The exclusion zone, so it seems, is safe enough if you follow the rules and stay in the right areas.

What Chernobyl and mudlarking have in common is a fascination with uncontrolled space. Maiklin’s “controlled chaos” is the city; so the uncontrolled chaos is the mud.

A mudlarker on the Thames at low tide
Alexander Savin (flickr); Creative Commons; Original

Most of London’s mudlarkers probably spend their days within glassed-over buildings, walking across paved streets, navigating around “do not walk” signs, avoiding sites of open construction, walling off unfinished spaces. Uncontrolled chaos is everywhere; only the most tenuous guides push us away from it. The uncontrolled is hidden behind physical barriers, which then become barriers to knowledge.

The London mudlarker revels in one obvious, open secret: the daily tide.

Other examples of this fascination come to my mind:

  1. The Instagram accounts are impressive, well-curated and worth checking out. I’ve followed them and will track down the book as well.[]