A mudlark — a person who scavenges for treasure in the muck and rubbish of a riverbank — sounds like a character from a Shakespearean comedy, flitting between the extremes of filth and magic. In her quirky memoir of modern mudlarking, Lara Maik­lem travels from west to east along the Thames, from Teddington to Tilbury, reflecting on London’s long and layered history as revealed in the detritus thrown up by the water. With minute attention, Maiklem tracks the river’s tides, descends steps and ladders to the foreshore in all weather, and crouches and crawls over mud and debris in search of fragments of the past. This kind of urban gleaning is an old pursuit, and city dwellers have always known that the river harbors secrets and treasures — Maiklem’s chapter headnotes quote from several 19th -century sources describing women and children who waded into the water on the hunt for scraps of metal or lumps of coal that could be rinsed off and sold for pennies.

Today, Maiklem’s status as a female mudlark makes her unusual: all the more so since she’s not motivated by the market value of her finds. She counts herself as a gatherer, an “eyes-only forager” rather than a hunter equipped with metal detector and shovel. In an effort to maintain the delicate equilibrium of the foreshore, regulations restrict how deep hunters can dig and what they can remove. The law defines certain objects as treasure, whose discovery must be reported to the authorities and offered up to museums for purchase. In the eyes of the law, something is treasure if it’s really old or really shiny — more than 300 years old or more than 10 percent precious metal. Maiklem’s notion of treasure is more complicated. She’s less interested in objects that hold their value through time than in those that trail mysteries and human stories with them.

Maiklem engages in a twofold process of rescue and research. When she unearths fragments of old tobacco pipes, for instance, we first learn how common that is, then discover how the pipes were made and how their size and structure changed over the centuries as tobacco became less expensive. Fragments of earthenware bottles carry enough information, combined with census records, for Maik­lem to temporarily resurrect a long-vanished riverside pub and its landlord.

She hunts for intimate and ordinary objects and finds items that people used to fasten their clothing, mark their possessions, seal their bonds and prove their affection: rings and hairpins, coins and tokens, knives and bottle stoppers, nails and pins, and fragments of pottery, shoes and pipes. Her finds often serve as a reminder of the city’s naval past and global adventures, of the cultural and geographic diversity of people and histories that converge on the riverbank. Religious tokens of various kinds have found their way into the water over the centuries, and today, Hindu icons are plentiful, as the “Thames has become a substitute for the Ganges” for the local faithful. But as far back as the Romans, London was a diverse place, garrisoned by soldiers from all over the empire, who constructed ingenious heating systems and imported wine and food to cope with their alienation on the damp northern island. Maiklem doesn’t make the point explicit, but amid Britain’s current paroxysms over national identity, it’s a pertinent reminder that notions of who or what is native and foreign have always been arbitrary.

Thames mud — damp and oxygen-free — is a “magical preserver,” Maiklem writes, and extracting an object from its embrace takes care, skill and an extraordinary level of patience, from both the mudlark and those who share her household. Maiklem describes wrapping lumps of wood and old leather shoes in plastic and tucking them away in cupboards or the freezer for months or years, until an expert or a technique can be found to help with long-term preservation. Whatever else the Internet has unleashed, it’s certainly made it much easier for similarly wired people to connect and share what they’ve discovered about the literal objects of their obsessions, whether those are “lead bag seals, Dutch clay pipes, pre-1800 buttons, bricks, lead tokens,” which are among the areas of expertise Maik­lem has encountered. The curious forager’s eye doesn’t discriminate in its fascination, even when the finds are frightful: musket balls and other weaponry, Roman “castration clamps,” human remains. There’s a certain coldness to this mudlark’s process of discovery and storytelling alike, as if the mud dulls the capacity for shock.

The river’s pull connects Maiklem to her childhood on a farm, where she was free to roam over fields and riverbanks and was “tutored” by her mother “in the art of looking.” She acquired a meditative attention to the tiny details of the natural world that serves her well as she studies the mud, and that she hopes to pass on to her own children as a way of slowing down amid the rush of modern life. Yet Maiklem’s attempts to describe her emotional connection to the river and to mudlarking remain rather vague, in sharp contrast to her ability to focus on, say, the carving on the head of a centuries-old ship’s nail. Perhaps a collector’s obsession is impossible ever to fully explain or share, but it means her narrative remains fragmentary — a cabinet of curiosities lacking the binding thread of a story. There’s only so much an object can reveal, and most of their stories inevitably end in speculation, the tantalizing uncertainty of what can’t be recovered. The foreshore, the mudlark’s domain, remains “a muddle of refuse and casual losses.”

Mudlark

In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames

By Lara Maiklem

Liveright.
314 pp. $27.95