River Thames "Mudlarks" Dig Up Medieval Toys

James Owen in London, England
for National Geographic News
May 3, 2004

Members of the London-based Society of Thames Mudlarks look very different today from the Victorian street children the group takes its name from. Where ragged waifs once searched for bits of bone and coal to sell, men in overalls, gloves, and rubber boots now comb the River Thames foreshore with metal detectors.

And though these amateur treasure hunters seldom find silver or gold, historians say what they do dig from the mud is transforming our understanding of childhood during the Middle Ages.

Many Mudlark finds will soon go on display as part of a touring exhibition of Britain entitled Buried Treasure. Organized by the British Museum, London, the exhibition highlights the growing contribution of non-professionals, particularly metal detectorists, in unearthing historically-important finds.

Among the showcased items are exquisite Iron Age gold necklaces, Anglo-Saxon jewels, and a hoard of Roman treasure. The Mudlark finds may be less eye-catching, but they are well represented thanks to the insights they provide into medieval society.

Dating from as early as the 13th century, items include tiny cannons and guns, metal figurines, and miniaturized household objects such as stools, jugs, cauldrons, and even frying pans complete with little fish.

Made mainly from pewter (a tin-lead alloy), these medieval toys are exceptionally rare and have helped transform perceptions of childhood during the Middle Ages, says Hazel Forsyth, curator of post-medieval collections at the Museum of London.

"In the 1960s French historian Philippe Aries claimed that there wasn't really such a thing as childhood in the Middle Ages and that parents didn't form emotional attachments with their offspring, regarding them as economic providers or producers for the household," Forsyth said.

Aries pioneered ways of looking beyond kings, politics, and war to everyday medieval life. He argued that parents invested little emotional capital in their children because they had lots of offspring, many of them died in infancy, and that surviving children were sent to work at the ages of six or seven. "His views had a lot of currency. And for very many years, people believed this," Forsyth said, noting that it has only been recently, with discovery of ancient childhood items by contemporary treasure hunters, "that we've challenged this received wisdom."

"Surprise, surprise, human nature doesn't change," she said. "Some parents [from the Middle Ages] were very devoted to their children and gave them every luxury and pleasure they could afford."

Metal Detecting

The British Museum's Richard Hobbs, curator of the Buried Treasure exhibition, said: "We knew very little about these miniature objects until the 1980s, when metal detecting really took off. It shows how a whole new class of objects can come to light and suddenly play a big part in writing social history."

Miniatures are rare today because pewter quickly corrodes under normal conditions, according to Hobbs. But the Thames's thick, foul-smelling mud is low in oxygen. As a result, it prevents organic decay and helps preserve such objects.

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