16 lost treasures unearthed from London’s River Thames

A 2000-year-old Roman bone hairpin is just one of several incredible treasures that’s been unearthed from the River Thames by London’s resident mudlarks.

From preserved Bovril bottles to ornate Medieval trinkets made from gold, the capital’s famous river contains remnants of nearly every period of human history – and the city’s mudlarking community has set to work finding them.

‘Mudlarking’, the practice of scavenging through river mud for lost items of value or historical significance, is becoming an increasingly popular activity in the capital.

Although you need a Port of London Authority permit to lark along the Thames foreshore, once you’re there you’re likely to find something exciting lurking in the mud.

So, what are the best lost treasures that have been found in London’s riverbed? 2Chill reached out to some of the region’s most seasoned mudlarks to find out.

Here are some of the most exciting objects discovered in London’s River Thames so far.

Roman bone hairpin, AD 43 to 100

(Image: Jason Sandy)

This incredibly well-preserved Roman hairpin, made from bone, was found by Jason Sandy on the surface of the foreshore.

The recent co-author of Thames Mudlarking: Searching for London’s Lost Treasures (2021), Jason has been mudlarking since 2012 and a member of the exclusive Society of Thames Mudlarks since 2018.

The delicately carved pin depicts a female bust with an unusually large hat or headdress at its top, complete with cross-hatching thought to imitate curls fashionable in the Flavian period (AD 69-96).

It has been dated to AD 43 to 100, and is now on permanent display in the Museum of London’s Roman gallery.

Jason theorised to 2Chill that the item was likely worn by a woman of distinction who had her hair done up elaborately for an evening out and was possibly blown into the river by a gust of wind.

Medieval knight’s knuckle guard, 14 th century

(Image: Jason Sandy)

Another amazing find from Jason Sandy, this cool found object is a knuckle guard, or ‘gadling’, from a Medieval’s knight’s gauntlet (an armoured glove).

Due to its unique central pyramidal spike – identified as unusual by a specialist at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds – and high-quality, it likely belonged to a wealthier knight.

The ‘gadling’, estimated to be from AD 1350 to 1400, is similar to those adorning the bronze effigy of the Black Prince, eldest son of King Edward III, at Canterbury Cathedral.

Jason added: “It is an incredible feeling to hold this rare and unique artefact, knowing that the last person to wear this knuckle guard was an extraordinary 14th century knight.”

Gold ‘posy’ mourning and memento mori ring, 17 th century

(Image: Rae Lee)

This exquisite piece of gold jewellery was found by Rae Lee, Vice Chair for the Society of Mudlarks, on the Southwark stretch of the Thames foreshore.

A post-Medieval ‘posy’ ring, dated to 1668, it’s thought to be a memento mori (a symbolic reminder of the inevibility of death) as well as a mourning ring commemorating the deceased.

The word ‘posy’ is derived from the Middle English word for ‘poetry’.

This style of ring, once popular as a love token, was typically inscribed with a short, sentimental quote, often in French, from the 14 th century – however, examples from the 17 th century onwards tend to be in English.

This ring is inscribed with “Alex: Cheeke obt 15 Feb 1668”, as well as skull engraving in part profile and a rectangular maker’s mark with “GW”.

Alex Cheeke has been identified as a London man and Hackney resident who was held the post of King’s proctor, an officer of the Judiciary in England who could intervene in actions for divorce, from 1660 until his death.

According to database PAS (Portable Antiquities Scheme), a posy ring in the British Museum collections has a similar maker’s mark.

Sealed ‘onion bottle’ for wine, 17 th century

(Image: Michael Knap)

Dubbed an ‘onion bottle’, this super rare 17 th century was used to hold wine.

It was found by Michael Knap, who is a member of The River Thames Mudlarking Finds group on Facebook.

The unique object was found buried in mud during a night-time mudlark, on the North Side of the Thames.

It’s dated to between 1675 and 1680, and is thought to have belonged to a notable gentleman with the initials “JD”.

Though the first initial appears to modern eyes to be an “I”, the “serif” (a slight projection finishing off a stroke of a letter) actually indicated a “J” at the time.

Assortment of beads, various dates

(Image: Florence Evans, on Instagram as @flo_finds)

These colourful beads were found by art historian, gallerist and mudlarker Florrie Evans, of @flo_finds.

Popular in most cultures, beads are among the objects most frequently found in rivers.

Though tiny, each can reveal a lot about the social, economic and religious circumstances in which it was crafted.

Florrie told 2Chill : “My absolute favourite finds are my beads.

“They have a relevant back story for our times. Trade beads are a poignant reminder of our slave trading pasts – how little a life ‘cost’, literally.”

She added: “Some of these beads are ancient Roman – the turquoise examples.”

The striped beads, long blue ‘spacer’ beads and millefiori beads, meanwhile, are all trade beads.

Pilgrim’s badge, 16 th century

(Image: Jason Sandy)

Finding a pilgrim’s badge is something many mudlarkers hope to achieve – and Jason Sandy did, with this amazing find.

This pewter badge features a crude depiction of the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus within a crescent moon.

It has been dated to AD 1500 to 1550 by the Museum of London, who also identified the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden as its source.

Pilgrims would purchase such inexpensive badges as souvenirs to add to their clothing or hats after going on a pilgrimage to a holy shrine.

It’s also thought by some historians that pilgrims threw their badges into the River Thames deliberately, which was considered sacred in Medieval England, to express gratitude for their safe journey.

Jason added: “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered this 500-year-old pilgrim’s badge lying on the exposed riverbed at low tide!

“This had been on my bucket list for many years.”

Brass medieval thimble, 15 th century

(Image: Jason Sandy)

Jason Sandy found this Medieval thimble on the exposed riverbed of the Thames at low tide.

It’s made from brass and was handmade, dating to the 15 th century.

Speaking about the find on his Instagram, Jason wrote: “Thimbles are a wonderful, tangible connection to Londoners who lived and worked here centuries ago.

“The designs have not changed much over the years, and they are still “fit for purpose.””

Roman coin, AD 226 to 427

(Image: Lara Maiklem on Instagram @london.mudlark)

Although coins are among the items most commonly found by mudlarks, they often aren’t this old.

This one is Roman and determined to have been minted is Siscia (modern-day Croatia), featuring emperor Gracian, who ruled the Western part of the Roman Empire from AD 367 to 383.

The coin was found by Lara Maiklem, on Instagram as @london.mudlark, and provides rare evidence of Roman slavery in Britain.

As well as the words ‘Glory of Rome’ written in Latin around the edge, it depicts a Roman, holding a labarum and dragging a captive behind him.

Lara explained more about the coin in a Facebook post in her community group, London Mudlark: Lara Maiklem Mudlarking.

She said: “Slavery was vital to the success of the Roman Empire and there were a lot of them.

“At the time this coin was minted, the slave population has been estimated at just under five million, representing 10–15 per cent of the total population.

“The Romans took slaves from the battles they fought and the lands they conquered, including Britain.

She added: “Most slaves lived hard lives, engaged in endless toil that could involve anything from digging lead in mines in Somerset, turning the water-wheels in London or simply tilling the soil on farms around their master’s villa.”

It has a radiocarbon date between AD 226 and 427.

Intact stoneware flagon, 19 th century

(Image: Lara Maiklem on Instagram @london.mudlark)

This incredible intact stoneware flagon is also a find from Lara Maiklem, and actually features in her book Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames.

After finding it lying in the mud out on the Estuary, she attempted to figure out how it got there, finding an intriguing history.

Writing about it on Facebook, she said: “It is stamped on the neck with the name of the landlord and the pub it originally came from: W May, King’s Arms, which was located at 61 Lower Thames Street in the City of London. It opened in 1775 and was demolished in 1920.

“I found the spot where it once stood, buts it’s just a busy road now, lined with office buildings and a far cry from what it would have been almost 200 years ago when this bottle was being filled by William May with wine and ale for river workers and sailors.

“William May was landlord of the King’s Arms between around 1835 and 1839.

“What I found most interesting were the lodgers they took in: rivermen, sailors, mariners and stevedores.

“These men came from far and wide: Cornwall, Ireland, Guernsey, Jersey, Switzerland and Canada – a human ebb and flow that once characterised the river and its surrounds.”

She concluded: “Did such a man leave the King’s Arms with this bottle and take it with him upriver on an early tide. Draining the last dregs of the previous night’s ale, he ditched it overboard into the Estuary as his ship headed out into the open sea.”

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Ornate Tudor gold button, 16 th century

(Image: James Davies)

This beautiful little treasure was found by James Davies, creator of The River Thames Mudlarking Finds, a 52,000-strong group on Facebook dedicated to “sharing the liquid History from the River Thames”.

Made of Tudor gold, this delicate and highly ornate button is part of the hoard that has been found in the Thames, and may have come from one piece of clothing or a hat.

The exact location it was found at cannot be disclosed due to the ongoing search.

The tiny 16 th century ornament is currently with the Museum of London, after being declared as treasure.

Lead sundial, 17 th century

(Image: James Davies)

This early 17 th century sundial was also found by James Davies.

The oldest known instrument for telling time, the humble sundial was the main method that people used up until the 19 th century.

Despite being the opposite of modern, these instruments can tell the time accurately to the minute, if placed correctly!

This one is made from lead and adorned with the well-preserved figure of a running dog on top!

It also appears to feature a once-painted façade, now faded.

World War II Fire Guard’s helmet, 20 th century

(Image: Jason Sandy)

It’s not just old relics that are preserved in the Thames – more modern ones are too.

Jason Sandy found this piece of history in the stretch of river near his home in West London, when lockdown restrictions prevented him travelling to his usual spots.

Known as a ‘Home Front Zuckerman helmet’ or ‘Civilian Protective helmet’, this type of headgear was mainly worn by personnel from the Fire Guard, a group established to extinguish fires caused by Nazi air raids during the London Blitz.

Members of the Fire Watch are responsible for ensuring London landmark St Paul’s Cathedral survived the bombing raids while surrounding buildings crumbled.

Bovril pot, 19 th or 20 th century

(Image: Lara Maiklem on Instagram @london.mudlark)

Although Bovril is still on our shelves and not exactly a rare find for mudlarkers, coming across one of these retro brown bottles is nonetheless an exciting experience – as well as one that seems reasonably achievable for novices.

This pretty specimen was found by seasoned mudlark Lara Maiklem.

She explained on Facebook : “Bovril pots are one of the most commonly found old bottles.

“The oldest, dating from 1888 to the 1930s, have long necks and come in six sizes, from seriously huge to tiny. Bovril, a cheap beef extract, was invented to supply the French army during the Franco-Prussian War, but soon became a popular drink among civilians in Britain.

“It began life as ‘Johnson’s Fluid Beef’, but became known as Bovril around 1888. The name comes from a combination of ‘bo’, Latin for ox, and ‘vril’, the mysterious life-force in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s book ‘The Coming Race’ (1871).”

Others in the comments shared details and photos of their own Bovril bottle finds.

Late Victorian love knot ring, 19 th century

(Image: Marie Louise Plum / @oldfatherthames on Instagram)

This pretty little ring was found by Marie Louise Plum, or ‘Old Father Thames’ as she’s known on YouTube and Instagram.

It’s estimated to be late Victorian, and is of unknown metal.

Marie theorised it could be pinchbeck alloy, copper, copper alloy, bronze, nickel or even silver.

As a result of its circular form, the lover’s knot is seen as a symbol of undying loyalty and love, and has been used for love tokens since the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

Georgian skeleton key with heart shaped bow, early 19 th century

(Image: Marie Louise Plum / @oldfatherthames on Instagram)

Another find from Marie, this Georgian skeleton key was found wedged between a number of rocks and flints on the exposed foreshore, and carefully manoeuvred out.

It appears to be made of a metal and features a bow (top) shaped like a heart and intricate tip and biting.

Watch Marie remove it in real-time here.

‘Church warden’ clay pipe, 18 th century

(Image: James Davies)

James Davies found this complete 18 th century clay pipe is called a ‘church warden’ pipe.

This style of pipe allegedly gets its name from church wardens poking the long-stemmed pipe through church windows, so that they could smoke while in church.

It’s extremely rare to find one totally intact, as this one is.

James explained: “This was found with just the bowl showing. Slowly scraping away bit by bit, the excitement rose – to then discover it was complete.

“To think it was surrounded by an amount of debris that could have smashed it into a million pieces if I had not found it.”

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